SUMMER BOXSETS: The Alienist (Series 1)

Next in our series of Summer Boxset reviews, we go back to late-19th century New York for a chilling serial killer hunt.

In the 19th century, persons thought to be suffering from mental illness were thought to be alienated from their own true natures. Experts who studied them were therefore known as alienists.

This preamble greets us at the start of each episode of The Alienist, an expensive-looking American series available to non-US viewers on Netflix.

What’s the story?
German actor Daniel Brühl plays Dr Laszlo Kreisler, a criminal psychologist who’s fervently evangelical about new profiling techniques. He’s absolutely adamant that the decrepit (and corrupt) New York City Police Department needs to add new dimensions to its investigations – namely his pioneering profiling techniques – but his pleas are often heard with deaf ears. That is until the mutilated body of a young boy is found on top of a bridge deep in the heart of the city. Such is the brutality and the ceremonial nature of the mutilation of the body, Kreisler immediately fears that this is the work of someone other than a random killer and locks into an intense psychological cat-and-mouse with the unknown perpetrator, a kind of New York Ripper. Along for the ride is crime scene illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans), an emotional, scarred carouser who drinks and spends much of his time engaging in carnal delights with the city’s sex workers; and Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), the first ever woman employed by the New York City Police Department, and someone who’s eager to put her own demons to bed and further her ambitions. Add in two brilliant, Jewish forensics expert brothers Marcus and Lucious Isaacson (Robert Day Wisdom and Douglas Smith), and Kreisler forms an unlikely and unofficial investigative team.

Kreisler is obsessive and unemotional, and this puts him at odds with Moore, his opposite, and there’s something of the Sherlock Holmes-John Watson dynamic at play here. Both love and respect each other, but are exasperated with each other, too. Add in Howard – who’s somewhere in between – and this triumvirate is an intriguing axis on which the show is based.

Things are ramped up as more children are found slain, and it’s quickly established that they are no ordinary kids – they’re all gender-bending, underage sex workers. It’s a grim and awful discovery and one that takes the team down into the subterranean depths of the city’s flesh houses.

It’s hard to fathom – the poverty, the desperation and then the normalisation of such things – and Kreisler and co are also tested to their moral limits, constantly seeing things and people they cannot unsee.

What’s good about it?
It looks incredible. Late 19th-century New York is rendered in the same way Victorian-era London was in Ripper Street here in the UK, but with 10 times the budget. It’s vibrant but absolutely filthy, with squalor and poverty everywhere; the poor rubbing shoulders with the upper classes who daintily tip-toe through the horse shit and human detritus. Opera houses and lavish dinners juxtapose with rat-infested tenements, migrant families living 10-to-a-room.

The satisfying whodunit and procedural thread that runs throughout the series is also as you would expect and hope for. Kreisler and his team’s investigation takes them all over the city; from the flesh houses to the police stations and to the parlours of the rich and famous and, eventually, way out west and into the country.

But what makes The Alienist really interesting is the emotional toll the heinous natures of the crimes and the subsequent investigation takes on its characters. Kreisler is an unlikeable, dogmatic obsessive, unable to show emotion; Moore is too emotional at times, sometimes weak (mostly human); and Howard is prickly and suspicious, often because of the gender roles Victorian society expects females to conform to. Each of them has parent issues, and together they make a dysfunctional family: they go through this draining experience fighting, making up and then fighting again. And, throughout the series, each of them, thanks to the investigation, must confront their own demons.

Their investigation – and personal redemptions – all take place within a volatile city, with plenty of socio-political upheaval and strife.  And we see that in The Alienist – the plight of migrants, poverty, corruption, the role the church and religion plays in an ever-changing society, the way war scars people, how scientific advances affect old views… it’s all here.

It’s also worth noting, like Ripper Street and Murdoch Mysteries – shows both set around the same time – there are real-life people from history within the cast of characters. Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) is the new chief of police (which actually did happen), and proto-capitalist, JP Morgan, also pops up.

Ted Levine does his best Daniel Day-Lewis/William Cutting impression as corrupt ex-chief of police, Thomas Byrnes.

What’s bad about it?
There’s nothing really bad about it.

But despite everything – its fantastic production design, its addictive whodunit element and the ever-fascinating socio-political nuances – there’s a sense that The Alienist never quite catches fire. And it’s difficult to understand why.

It’s based on the novel by Caleb Carr, which was often said to be unfilmable, and there is a sense that because there is so much extra stuff in here, it often loses momentum. It’s very good – brilliant in places – but it really could have been amazing. In fact, it suffers in the same way Ripper Street did – enjoyable, very watchable and sometimes brilliant, but not quite there. Whether this has something to do with the adherence to historical vernacular or the stilted nature of the time period, I’m not sure.

There was also a feeling that we’d seen this all before. The character paradigms were very familiar, as was the set-up – the formation of an unofficial investigating group, the way these characters interact with each other… you could almost play a game of bingo with them. Yep, that person did that… oh, and now that person has done that. It just shows you: there’s nothing new under the sun.

Another thing that slightly irked was the way Kreisler was wont to repeat the whole ‘TO CATCH HIM WE MUST FIND OUT WHAT THIS MAN IS THINKING!’ line.

Yeah, we get it.

But really, The Alienist was, for the most part, a really enjoyable watch: fantastic to look at, intriguing characters and plenty of historical procedure to get yourself stuck into.

Why it’s worth a binge…
If you like the oeuvre of Sherlock Holmes, Ripper Street and Gangs Of New York.

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