TNT’s The Alienist is a period piece that has potential to shine if it decides to challenge itself.
The Alienist is a period piece about horrific murders not seen before. It makes that perfectly clear within the first five minutes of viewing.
We are brought back to turn-of-the-century New York City, where murders are swept under the rug by a corrupt police department, and where the class divide is strong between the haves and have-nots. Within the span of the first episode, the audience will also get a whiff of the immense amount of prejudice that is interwoven into general exchanges between characters. For many, the themes touched upon in the show will remind them very much of social issues we are seeing now in the present.
What is the general premise?
We are introduced to the Alienist, Dr. Kreizler (Daniel Brühl), who has been summoned by the police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) to help assist in figuring out who is leaving mutilated bodies of young boys throughout the lower Manhattan area. Unfortunately, investigating these murders has to be done in such a way as to not draw attention. Why? Because there are some very powerful folks who control the area with an iron fist. What makes it worse is that the police’s hands are tied (and bribed).
To get around this, Kreizler gathers a band of misfits to help assist him in his investigations. He drags in an illustrator from the New York Times, John Moore (Luke Evans), to assist him in sketching out the murder victims. Kreizler eventually convinces Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary, Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), into assisting him despite the threat to her job. The threat to her job is more pronounced because she’s already caused a stir by being the first female employed by the New York Police and because her ambition to become a detective conflicts with gendered presumptions in the department.
Everyone comes together to create a turn-of-the-century band of misfits and outsiders to solve the murders. However, something will have to give if they are to succeed. Sacrifices will also have to be made.
But is the show innovative enough to keep viewers engaged?
The show definitely caters to the period genre niche crowd, which may or may not hurt TNT. Where The Alienist fails is that it doesn’t quite know how to make itself stand out in a sea of period dramas. It hits all the right notes in the genre, but there is nothing yet that pushes the envelope or forces the audience to challenge assumptions of the show. The mood is dark and suspenseful. The lighting of the show lends itself to elevate the mood in order to showcase to the audience how gritty New York City was in the past. Other than that, based off of the first couple of episodes, the show falls in line with general assumptions and expectations.
However, what will entice viewers is how The Alienist does not shield the audience from the nitty-gritty details of the crime. We get close up views inside a murder victim’s eye socket and get to see researchers test out on a poor dead cow’s orbital socket which knife was used in the killing. These details are definitely not for the squeamish. Then there is the honest and haunting portrayal of the sex trade. Children are used and abused and the showrunners do not keep that from us. Nor do they spare us from what the police think of these expendable creatures.
Overall, The Alienist has a certain gruesome quality that will keep viewers interested. However, unless the story takes the audience different directions, the show will suffer comparisons to other shows. The show is only 10 episodes, so there is a lot of ground to cover.