Review: The Alienist 1×1 (US: TNT; UK: Netflix)

Ripper Street meets Mindhunter

The Alienist

In the US: Monday, 9/8c, TNT
In the UK: Available on Netflix starting April 19

Although ‘TNT – bang!’ may have had some success as a diversification strategy for the US network, giving us the likes of The Last Ship, TNT’s new slogan has largely only resulted in bold experiments such as Will that promptly flopped. The network may be looking to expand its range of interests, but it seems its viewers still want crime shows and plenty of them – and nothing but crime shows.

To its credit, though, TNT is still trying to push the envelope with its original output. In the past couple of years, we’ve had Animal Kingdom, Claws and Good Behavior, all of which have tried to change the usual procedural crime formula even if they’ve not been very good, and now we have the somewhat better The Alienist.

The Alienist

Adapted from the first of Caleb Carr’s best-selling series of book by Cary Fukunaga (True Detective) and Hossein Amini (Drive), the show is a sort of Ripper Street meets Mindhunter set in 19th century New York. It stars Daniel Brühl (Captain America: Civil WarGood Bye Lenin!) as Dr Laszlo Kreizler, an ‘alienist’ as the then parlance described those who tried to treat the mentally ill. When a mutilated boy’s body is found dressed up as a girl on the city’s new bridge, Kreizler senses a mind at work similar to one of his former patients’ and seeks to involve himself in the investigation. Helping him are his former Harvard classmate turned newspaper illustrator Luke Evans (The Hobbit, Dracula Untold) and the police force’s lone woman, Dakota Fanning (Twilight). Hindering him – at least at the moment – is the new police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (yes, that one).

All of which sounds very promising, doesn’t it? Great cast, great looking, lots of lovely period detail, particularly in the speech and there’s a pleasing variety to the characters. It’s all a bit ‘temporal tourism’ in the style of Babylon Berlin, as we learn for example that police officers used to summon help by banging their truncheons against metal girders, but it does it very well and with a considerable amount of debauchery.

Trouble is, when I say it’s Ripper Street meets Mindhunter, that’s it. We’re done. Say no more, as it doesn’t yet do much more than relocate attempts to think like serial killers back 100 years, while pointing out that women, ethnic minorities, the mentally ill and the physically ill really didn’t have a great time of things back in the 19th century. Corsets? Apparently they were a bit tight. How do you like that insight?

It’s hugely more gory than previous shows, mind you, and the frequent visits to naked prostitutes are another obvious differentiator. But in terms of plotting, we’re basically Gotham By Gaslighting Manhunter.

Dakota Fanning in The Alienist
Dakota Fanning in The Alienist

Novelistic

All the same, there’s that kind of quality both in front of and behind the camera. There’s also the fact the books have done as well as they have. All of which means I’m prepared to stick it out for a few more episodes to see if there is more to the show than its first episode would suggest.

So far, not much has been done with Roosevelt, so I’m curious to see where that goes, and Brühl’s slightly bonkers speech at the end of the episode suggests that we’re not going to get modern psychology transported back into the 19th century, but something far more of its time instead.

But for such an obviously expensive, notably different looking show, TNT hasn’t exactly puts its better foot forward with its initial outing.