The first two episodes of TNT’s THE ALIENIST were watched for this review. Mild spoilers follow.

Why do we find ourselves so intrigued by serial killers? There’s a morbid fascination human beings have for grisly sights that keeps us from turning away when we see them. It’s the reason we gawk at a car accident on the highway, or quickly glance at photos of graphic violence. The idea that a human could be capable of such horrors seems to repel and attract people equally.

It’s that balance of repulsion and fascination that lurks in the heart of the new TNT series THE ALIENIST, based on Caleb Carr’s novel. The show follows Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl) as an alienist investigating the graphic murder of a young boy in 1896 New York City. Kreizler’s pursuit of the killer leads him down a path of darkness.

He determines that in order to capture a monster, he must understand one. Part of the appeal of THE ALIENIST is seeing this familiar story of an obsessed detective hunting a crazed killer in the 1800’s. There’s no DNA evidence or powerful government agencies, just a group of driven social outcasts trying to crack the case.

The Alienist
Courtesy: TNT

The Cast

Daniel Bruhl leads the cast of rag-tag amateur sleuths in a role that seems tailor-made for him. Bruhl’s career up to this point has involved playing a combination of obsessed stiffs (RUSH), focused villains (CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR), and outwardly friendly men with dark interior lives (INGLORIOUS BASTERDS). The role of Kreizler isn’t outside of his wheelhouse, but it’s a good showcase for the actor. As Kreizler pieces together the mystery, he steps deeper into the madness of the killer. 

Keeping Kreizler grounded is newspaper sketch artist John Moore (Luke Evans). Luke Evans is playing a much more likable figure than the usual cads he typically plays, but the pilot doesn’t really give him much to do other than play Watson to Kreizler’s Holmes. Even the ancillary characters like the Isaacson brothers (Douglas Smith and Matthew Shear), a pair of proto-forensic scientists, feel better realized. This is no slight against Evans who plays the character well, but the first two episodes don’t provide his character with much agency within the story. However, the cliffhanger for episode two seems to suggest more interesting developments for the character in the narrative going forward.

Dakota Fanning rounds out the group as Sara Howard. Fanning’s performance is dynamic and a great reminder of why she was such a praised young actor. Fanning has been working consistently, but her work in THE ALIENIST sees her roaring back with a terrific performance. Howard is a whip-smart woman who yearns to smash through the glass ceilings placed in her way.

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Trail of the Killer

The story itself is so far an engaging one, albeit one that relies on some typical serial killer tropes. Dr. Laszlo Kreizler is an alienist, a term referring to the idea that people with mental health issues are “alienated” from their true nature. At first, Kreizler seems like an American Made Sherlock Holmes, but his motivations are more complicated than that. Kreizler’s obsession with the case comes in part from his empathy for children.

Kreizler’s obsession is due, in part, to the murder of a pair of children in his care who were killed years earlier. This guilt makes Kreizler particularly tightly wound and perhaps a little too intrigued by the behaviors of the killer. Sherlock Holmes may talk about being anti-social or even a “high functioning sociopath” in SHERLOCK, but Kreizler seems like he could actually snap at any moment.

The Alienist
Courtesy: TNT

Contemporary Commentary

One of the more enticing parts of the series comes less from the identity of the killer and more from the politics surrounding the murders. The first victim the series shows is a boy who dresses in feminine clothes while working as a prostitute. As this information is revealed, many in the police department seem indifferent to solving the case of a murdered “degenerate.”

As a secretary in New York’s police department, Sara Howard is able to give Kreizler and Moore inside information regarding the case. Her role also gives us insights into the evolution, or lack thereof, of women in the workplace. Howard is the only woman working in the department and is subject to all manner of harassment from her male coworkers. The more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same.

It’s this corruption in the police department that, in part, motivates Kreizler. This isn’t just about finding a killer; it’s about finding justice for the forgotten members of society. Ultimately, Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) permits Kreizler to launch a parallel investigation when Sara Howard discovers that members of the police department are trying to suppress further investigation into the murder intentionally.

The subtle social commentary is what makes THE ALIENIST such a winning series. The show does not shy away from the murkier side of the past that still parallels America today. Women in the workplace are frequently harassed and insulted by male coworkers. Immigrant families are still forced to live in subpar conditions, while authorities continue to turn a blind eye to their suffering. With a few small tweaks, THE ALIENIST could just as easily take place in 2017.

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The Stellar Direction of THE ALIENIST

The series’ visual style drops the audience into the world of 1800s New York. The score is a haunting clash of strings that sound like a siren call from the bowels of hell. Each moment of unsettling visual dread is accompanied by these powerful compositions from composer Rupert Gregson-Williams.

Director Jakob Verbruggen captures the same type of aesthetic malice that made executive producer Cary Fukunaga’s work on the first season of TRUE DETECTIVE so memorable. Each episode is rich with background details and sets that bring this bygone era to life. The production design for the series is truly impeccable.

If these first few episodes are any indication, THE ALIENIST will rank alongside great TV crime thrillers like TRUE DETECTIVE or BROADCHURCH. It’s a series that will shock you while also giving a fascinating look into the methods of historical detective work. It’s Sherlock Holmes with the brutal realism of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

THE ALIENIST begins airing Monday, January 22nd on TNT.

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