Based on the novel of the same name, “The Alienist” is set in 1897 New York City. The premiere opens with the murder of a young boy prostitute on the newly-built Williamsburg Bridge. The police find the body butchered and mangled with its eyes plucked out, which draws the attention of German doctor Laslo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl). Kreizler is an alienist, a member of early psychiatrists who believed that those suffering from mental illness were “alienated” from their true natures. He recruits newspaper illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans), police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty), and Roosevelt’s secretary Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) to investigate this brutal and heinous crime.
From the start, the series feels dark and grimy. The shots are moody and visually quite monotone to set up an ominous feeling. The mini-series jumps right into the crime scene where we see the wreckage of the body dressed in blood–soaked, gossamer white dress. When Kreizler is tipped off about the murder, he is instantly intrigued as it reminds him of a previous case. He sends Moore to illustrate the crime, which the police officers are almost refusing to investigate as it would involve antagonizing powerful and corrupt underlords. The audience is first introduced to Moore as he is in the arms of a prostitute with whom he shares a complicated relationship. The next few episodes explore their convoluted history,which turns out not to be the focus. Roosevelt is also introduced early on. He is a stoic commissioner with firm rules and principles, unwilling to have Kreizler involved in the case. From the start, it is easy to see that their conflicting methodologies will cause many bumps over the course of the investigation and these dark personalities are more than a match for their surroundings.
Meanwhile, Kreizler recognizes the butchering from a previous vicious crime and believes that both crimes were committed by the same disturbed mind. Three years ago, he treated a young boy from the Kreitz family, who liked to dress up in his sister’s clothes. When this boy and his sister went missing, panic was widespread until their dead bodies were eventually found. While his sister’s body remained relatively untouched, the boy Ben’s body was ravaged. Part of Kreizler’s interest in the crime stems from his own guilt as he believes that he is to blame. He asked the Kreitz family to tolerate and accept their son’s crossdressing, but it seems that it was precisely this habit which prompted the murderer to act.
Unlike many in its genre, this crime series does a good job of showing tragedies, particularly of these young innocent boys whose personalities were not accepted by those of their time. Rather than focusing solely on the lives of the detectives and the murderer, the show stresses the victim and his death’s brutality so that the audience does not forget why they are watching the show. Other scenes add on to the injustice and pity the audience feels: The doctor visits a criminal institution and mental ward where patients scream as they are brutally mistreated. The rattling chains and blood–curdling screams clearly take a leaf out of gothic books, and add to the chilling aesthetic that the show strives to create.
Daniel Brühl plays Kreizler with darkness that is balanced by his sensitivity, as his character earnestly tries to do the right thing, but gets somewhat lost in the intensity of the crime and politics of investigation. His approach to solving the murder is methodical and rooted in understanding—and almost becoming—the criminal. This in itself is not revolutionary at all, but Brühl’s charisma is inviting, keeping you riveted. Fanning (as Howard) is another great addition to the show, with her dry quips, strength, and concern. Her fierce, chain-smoking, high-society character remains wreathed in a cloud of mystery, but it is clear that she takes her position as the only woman in the police department seriously.
If you are looking for a revolutionary mystery and crime series, “The Alienist” will not provide that. However, its haunting intensity is intriguing enough to entice its audience to stick around for at least the first few episodes.
—Staff writer Aline G. Damas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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