Is it too late to go back and retroactively change the title of TNT’s The Alienist to True Detective 1896? It would be a good fit, and not just because Cary Fukunaga, who directed all of season one of that HBO series, is the executive producer. Based on Caleb Carr’s 1994 best seller, the series recreates late-19th century Manhattan as a landscape of filth and horror. The main characters are buddy cops, and they’re chasing a serial killer of seemingly supernatural powers through a Gothic film noir horror-fantasy landscape that seems equally inspired by dissertations and graphic novels. Daniel Bruhl’s Dr. Laszlo Kreizler is an alienist, or psychologist, so named because the earliest form of psychology thought that the mentally ill were alienated from themselves. He’s trying to solve the butchery of several young Manhattan children who appear to have been eviscerated by a disturbed man who … well, we’ll get to him. Kreizler’s partner is John Moore (Luke Evans), a tall and handsome newspaper illustrator who goes out on news assignments and draws what he sees: a Weegee of the pen. The unofficial third partner is Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), a secretary at NYPD headquarters who is fascinated by the same things as Kreizler, has access to otherwise forbidden documents, and would rather be out in the streets risking death than wandering the halls of the police station being condescended to, leered at, and flashed.
You’ve been here before many, many times, even if the precise setting is new to you. Part of the appeal of Carr’s book was the comfort food factor. It relied on serial-killer formula as established by Thomas Harris, who is to that genre what George Romero was to the zombie film. All the rules and traditions worked out in his Hannibal Lecter stories were present in Carr’s novel, and have been faithfully replicated here, including the profiler who tries to see through the eyes of his quarry and the killer so diabolical that you start to wonder if he’s even human. (When Kreizler and Moore spot him on the other side of the street, everything but his eyes hidden in the swaths of his coat, hat, and scarf, we instinctively know that this is the guy even before the orchestra-pit-freak-out music cues confirms it. Sure enough, when the carriage passes … he’s not there!) Carr’s novel did a brilliant job of freshening up a story whose beats were so familiar even then that if the pages suddenly turned blank, you might’ve been able to guess the rest. What separated it from the rest of what was being done in that vein was the astonishingly intricate historical scaffolding the author had built. I learned a lot about the elevated train systems during the coal-burning locomotive years, the economic exploitation of sex workers in a basically Edwardian society, and the you-don’t-want-to-know-how-bad status of plumbing and drainage. This series doesn’t get down to that level very often, although it definitely spends a lot of time getting the streets right (you can practically smell the horse apples) and the corsets, too (there’s a tight close-up of Sara’s back after she takes hers off, and it’s crisscrossed with what looks like a flesh map of the national railroads).
The thinness of the supporting characters and the general absence of interest in women who aren’t prostitutes starts to grate pretty quickly — if Q’orianka Kilcher, who plays Kreizler’s housemaid, has a single word of dialogue in the first hour, I must have missed it — but those flaws are somewhat compensated by a keen awareness of the economic engines that drive everything that happens on the show, and that has happened. The city of New York is still feeling the aftereffects of the Civil War and the Western expansion (and Native American genocide), and the combination of new industrial techniques and free-flowing international capital is turning everyone who’s not already rich into a bipedal dray horse. The production design and costumes often speak more eloquently than any of the characters, and work overtime to communicate subtext that feels a lot more fresh than most of the text. Despite the apparent dependence on CGI, which is true of nearly everything these days, the images are still overwhelmingly tactile. The direction by Jakob Verbruggen is consistently superb, with flourishes that can sincerely be called virtuoso. And the totality of the thing can’t fail to impress.
Like The Knick, Deadwood, Gangs of New York, and other down-in-the-muck period pieces, this is a series that doesn’t offer much in the way of historical sugarcoating. Certain storytellers build worlds so all-enveloping that you find yourself being led by the nose for hours at a time, even as you make a mental list of all the elements that could’ve been done better. The New York of The Alienist is a hellhole painted in broad strokes, with some fine brushwork happening in the margins.