TV Review: “The Alienist” Follows a Well-Worn Pattern

Martha Trydahl Martha Trydahl TV Review: “The Alienist” Follows a Well-Worn PatternPhoto via IMDb.
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If you’re looking for a hit show about the psychology of a serial killer, you’ve probably seen it already.

TNT’s The Alienist follows the well-worn pattern of this genre: the team leader who obsessively researches the characteristics of a serial killer in order to find the suspect, and a motley crew to help them see the case from different angles. And of course, some light romance to brighten it all up.

What sets this show apart is the setting, along with it’s prestigious cast.

Based on the 1994 novel by Caleb Carr, The Alienist is a fictional story that is grounded in a very real 1896 New York: immigrants were living on top of each other in rat-infested tenements, women were fighting for their right to vote, and people who lived outside the norms of society were easily shunned and forgotten.

As we are reminded at the beginning of each episode, people who suffered from a mental illness were believed to have alienated from their true nature. An alienist is an early term for a psychiatrist or psychologist who studied them.

The series begins with our alienist, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl), who runs a home for children who suffer from emotional and psychological disorders. He seems especially empathetic and open-minded to his young patients, but put him in a room full of his peers, and he’ll manage to offend everyone.

Kreizler is intrigued by the horrific murder of a young prostitute. The circumstances remind him of the murder of one of his patients, who was also a transgender boy. Could there be a connection?

As an alienist for the courts, Kreizler is not permitted at the crime scene. He asks his friend John Moore (Luke Evans), an illustrator for the New York Times, to observe and report the scene back to him.

Soon, lady trailblazer Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) joins the rag tag group as a liaison to the police commissioner. Howard is the first woman hired at the police department as the commissioner’s secretary.

Brian Geraghty underwhelmingly plays police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt. Tasked with fighting the Mayor and his own crooked police force to find the killer, he’s too quiet and reserved for the task.

As the series goes on, we learn that the police have been ignoring the murders of poor and often immigrant children. They are also protecting the wealthy people who murder them.

The Alienist is a study in daddy issues, or more broadly, parent issues of some sort. Absent parents, neglectful parents, and abusive parents are all guilty of messing us up. All three main characters seem to suffer from these issues, not unlike our serial killer.

While struggling to find a motivation for his suspect, Kreizler says to Howard, “We don’t form on our own. Society forms us.”

There’s a sexual tension triangle percolating between Kreizler, Howard and Moore. After Howard and Kreizler get to know each other and engage in some minor flirting, Howard confesses to a friend that she hopes something will happen with a doctor she’s recently met.

Howard and Kreizler are similar characters in that they both have gruff, emotionally blank personalities. But, thanks to Fanning’s masterful acting skills, her character is much more compelling. There’s an especially poignant scene in which Kreizler insults Howard in front of the group. The camera remains locked on her as she reacts to the insult. It is so moving and raw, you can’t help but be sucked in.

There’s also a complicated relationship between Kreizler and his mute maid, Mary. She’s obviously jealous of the time Kreizler is spending with Howard. But Kreizler is so hard to read, so it’s difficult to know who he’s romantically interested in, if anyone.

Kreizler’s serial killer case is moving forward in fits and spurts, and it’s certainly not due to his cracker jack interviews. Kreizler questions several people in his search for clues, but he rarely asks more than a handful of esoteric questions that glean no clear answers. For example, after Moore is drugged when questioning a prostitute in a brothel, Kreizler insists on returning to interview the witness himself. When confronted with young “Sally,” Kreizler doesn’t ask a single question about the murder suspect with a silver smile, but instead wants to learn how “Sally” knows when to trust a potential customer.

In the most recent episode, Kreizler hints to Roosevelt that he doubts that Willem Van Bergen is the killer. We have seen what seems to be two different suspects: a shadowy figure living in squalor that is shown cooking organs and feeding them to his cat, and then Van Bergen, living a life of luxury and spoiling his prey. Could he be the serial killer who climbs all over Lower Manhattan?

Keep watching TNT on Mondays to find out.

Grade: B-

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