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.
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
Wendy Walker spent 32 years at CNN, 18 of those as the senior executive producer for Larry King Live. Criminal defense attorney, Mark Geragos, worked with Walker serving as a consultant. The two are now executive producers of the new ABC drama, Notorious, a behind the scenes look at what goes into producing a cable news show.
For news junkies who miss HBO’s The Newsroom, Notorious, might help curb those cravings. The ego-driven personalities on and off the set yield soap-opera worthy story lines. (Just consider the recent developments at Fox News.) Piper Perabo plays Julia George, a “powerhouse” who produces the Megan Kelly-like talk show, Louise Herrick Live. Daniel Sunjata plays Jake Gregorian, a high-profile defense attorney who often winds up in a chair being grilled by Herrick. Yet what viewers see is only part of the story. George and Gregorian are very much a team, massaging and managing the news for both their benefits. When one of Gregorian’s clients is found at a murder scene, his hands covered in blood, the duo will find events spiraling out of control. Can they trust each other? Stay tuned.
Notorious benefits from a strong cast. Perabo doesn’t rely on the athletic moves she displayed as CIA agent Annie Walker in USA’s Covert Affairs. George’s power comes from the information that she possesses. (When she discovers her boyfriend, an ambitious judge, has been visiting prostitutes, she doesn’t just break up with him. She puts him on notice that she’ll hold onto that nugget until she finds a good time to use it, a time bomb if there ever was one.)
Daniel Sunjata and J. August Richards (Photo credit: ABC/Kelsey McNeal)
Sunjata has an impressive resume that includes major roles on FX’s Rescue Me and USA’s Graceland. As Gregorian, he exudes the confidence and arrogance befitting an attorney who boasts a star-stunned list of clients. Gregorian and George are both used to being in control. There’s a sexual tension in their relationship which, we assume, will also be part and parcel of the show’s theme.
Kate Jennings Grant (Herrick), who has a long list of TV and film credits, recently won rave reviews for her performance in the Broadway revival of Noises Off. On set, Herrick is all business, asking the hard questions, never letting a guest off the hook. Off set, she’s often found in her dressing room canoodling with her latest boy toy. Jennings Grant manages both sides of her character with ease. She’s a delight to watch.
Kate Jennings Grant (Photo credit: ABC/Kelsey McNeal)
The supporting cast is also strong. J. August Richards plays Bradley, Gregorian’s brother and law partner, who takes the lead in the pilot’s subplot, a blackmail scheme against one of the firm’s clients. Jake may be the face of Gregorian & Gregorian, but Bradley is the one who keeps the wheels turning. Sepideh Moafi is Julia’s assistant, Megan Byrd, who also watches out for her boss’s welfare. Ryan Guzman plays fresh-faced Ryan Mills, an intern who got the job because his father is head of the network, but is eager to prove himself and impress Julia. His first move involves tricking Jake’s associate, Ella Benjamin (Aimeé Teegarden). She’s initially angry, but who can resist that fresh face?
Notorious follows the trend of many shows these days where an entire season is devoted to solving one crime. (TNT’s Murder in the First has done that for three seasons.) Anthology shows demand commitment on the part of the viewer. But once that viewer is hooked, the ratings follow. All things considered, Notorious has cast out a strong line.
Notorious premieres at 9 p.m. Thursday, September 22, 2016, on ABC.
Top: Piper Perabo and Sepideh Moafi, Credit: ABC/Eli Joshua Ade