The Alienist – Chasing a Serial Killer in 1896 New York

When I first watched the trailers for The Alienist, I was intrigued. The story, based on the 1994 bestseller of the same name by Caleb Carr, focuses on a series of gruesome murders of young, male prostitutes in 1896 New York City and the team (including the “Alienist” of the title) which sets out to solve them. The short snippets of action kept me on the edge of my seat, with intriguing bits of narration over dark and macabre scenes; and quick cuts of street urchins in rags provided a startling counterpoint to the high-born in ball gowns and tuxes. The stunning sets, the dramatic music, and the creative graphics also added to the atmosphere.

The on-line and social media support given this limited series has been first class, too. The Alienist website contains behind-the-scenes interviews with the cast, features about the Gilded Age, madness, and the new science of forensics. I even noticed “bus shelter” ads with the gripping tagline, “Madness Lies Within.” It has been a clever and targeted buildup to the actual series. 

Dakota Fanning

After watching two episodes, I was even more impressed. Daniel Brühl, as Criminal Psychologist Dr. Laszlo Kreisler, strikes just the right tone of brilliant but obsessive; Luke Evans plays the complex newspaper illustrator, John Moore, who is caught between the city’s demons and his own. And Dakota Fanning is the self-possessed and intelligent young woman who was the first female to be hired by the New York Police Department and Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt; and has her sights set on becoming the first female police detective in New York City.

Daniel Brühl (center)

The focus on historical accuracy also elevates this series. Turn of the century New York is grim and grimy – you can practically smell and feel the dirt on the streets. The old street lights cast eerie shadows on everything. Even the sound effects are crisp and compelling, propelling the story forward at breakneck speed. In short, it is a high end, first class production. And you see every dollar of the estimated $5,000,000 price tag per episode on the screen.

Unfortunately, beneath it all, there is little pulse. I was never carried away by the story; I was never hooked. The dialogue feels stiff and forced; and worse yet, predictable. Even the acting feels a bit flat. Or maybe it’s the directing. I’m not sure, but I am sure that I never really connected with it on an emotional level.

That is unfortunate, since high-end mini-series like this one definitely add flavor to the new “TV landscape.” While I applaud TNT’s efforts to go beyond re-runs and begin to compete with Netflix and Amazon, I just wish this one had been more successful. For right now, I’ll stick to Law and Order.

The Alienist premieres January 22, 2018, on TNT.

Photos by Kata Vermes
Top photo: Daniel Brühl and Luke Evans

About Paula M. Levine (22 Articles)
Paula is an award-winning writer, producer, and storyteller who has spent over twenty years producing news, feature stories, documentaries, and web content. Since 2014, she has also taught Writing and Media Relations at NYU in their Masters Program in PR and Corporate Communication. In her "copious spare time", she runs, bikes, and swims; and has completed 7 NYC Marathons.