Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Alienist: Caleb Carr’s Novel Comes to TNT

The state of psychological treatment was pretty grim around the late Nineteenth Century, but fortunately you were much more likely to die from disease, malnutrition, or industrial accidents before depression or schizophrenia could really run their course. Murder was also a possibility. Dr. Laszlo Kreizler is a progressive head-shrinker and a pioneering criminologist loosely attached to the NYPD. Even the reformist commissioner, Teddy Roosevelt is skeptical of his methods, but he will empower his investigation of a suspected serial killer anyway in TNT’s limited series adaptation of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist (trailer here), which premieres tomorrow night.

Kreizler is an odd fellow, but he still has a knack for convincing newspaper illustrator John Moore to do his bidding. Moore will be less than thrilled when Kreizler sends him out to sketch the grisly crime scene where a murdered boy prostitute was found, but he does it anyway. Kreizler is convinced the killer has struck before, but the uniformed officers are either paid to look the other way or too callous to care.

They both have shared history with TR, but that will only get them so far. Moore also had some prior dealings with Roosevelt’s stereotype-challenging assistant Sara Howard, but that was all quite unfortunate. Nevertheless, the three will become the brain-trust of a semi-official task force, rounded out by Sergeants Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, who are not well-liked on the force, due to their modern investigative techniques (as well as the fact they are Jewish). Howard will report their findings directly to Roosevelt, because Captain Connor is transparently corrupt and quite possibly complicit in the murders, at least to some extent.

Based on the first two episodes, will feel confident saying The Alienist is a prime example of the importance of casting. As Connor, David Wilmot is already a bad guy we love to hate and the great Ted Levine promises even greater scenery-chewing villainy as his predecessor, Thomas Byrnes. The three primary leads, Daniel Brühl, Dakota Fanning, and Luke Evans are also bang-on target.

In fact, Kreizler could very well be the breakout role Brühl has struggled to find after Inglorious Basterds led to predictions he would be the next big thing. He really has the right blend of twitchiness and arrogance. Evans keeps his jaw squared as Moore, while Fanning is strong but sensitive as Howard. Only Brian Geraghty seems off-the-mark, coming across rather passive and milquetoast as TR (who was nobody’s shrinking violet).

The Alienist is a richly detailed period production (executive produced by Cary Fukunaga, with John Sayles on board as a “consulting producer”), but after two installments, Hossein Amini’s adaptation still feels somewhat weighted down with exposition. Presumably, helmer Jakob Verbruggen will quicken the pace for the subsequent six episodes. It certainly shows promise and fans of the original novel should appreciate its faithfulness. Recommended (so far) for viewers of BBC America shows, like Copper and Ripper Street, The Alienist begins tomorrow night (1/22) on TNT.