Review: 'The Alienist'

Jan 22, 2018
Originally published on January 22, 2018 6:42 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And a new series is debuting tonight on TNT. "The Alienist" is the story of a group of sleuths in the 19th century on the hunt for a serial killer. It's based on the best-selling novel. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the show is really an attempt by TNT to redefine its brand.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: First off, "The Alienist" isn't a drama about a guy who hangs out with little, green men from Mars. The title comes from a term used in the 1800s to describe psychologists who are said to help people alienated from their true natures. In this case, the term refers to Dr. Laszlo Kreisler. He's a doctor in 1896-era New York City who's so modern-thinking, he chides parents who demean their son by using the term bedwetting.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ALIENIST")

DANIEL BRUHL: (As Dr. Laszlo Kreisler) The medical term is enuresis. Bedwetting has connotations of shame. That is unhelpful to a child.

MARIA TERESA CREASEY: (As character) What we'd like to know, doctor, is if you can cure Ezra (ph).

BRUHL: (As Dr. Laszlo Kreisler) As an alienist, I treat mental and emotional disorders in my patients, and I try to alleviate the condition. I do not presume to cure them.

DEGGANS: Played with a confident, bloodless precision by Daniel Bruhl, Kreisler is a doctor with a God complex who insists he doesn't have one. When he hears that a young, male prostitute is found horrifically murdered, he sends a friend who just happens to be an illustrator for The New York Times to capture the crime scene. That friend John Moore, played by Luke Evans, describes a brutal scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ALIENIST")

LUKE EVANS: (As John Moore) I saw a boy dressed suggestively in girl's clothing who had been - it was as if an animal had torn him apart.

BRUHL: (As Dr. Laszlo Kreisler) More specific. Deep wounds or shallow? Precisely executed or haphazard? Were the viscera exposed? The guts, Moore.

EVANS: (As John Moore) I know what viscera are.

DEGGANS: What unfolds is a little like "Silence Of The Lambs," 1800s-style, as Kreisler uncovers a brutally gory serial killer preying on male prostitutes. Because they're sex workers, police generally couldn't care less. So the doctor assembles a team of helpers, including Dakota Fanning as a secretary in the office of then-Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt. Kreisler realizes he has to do something psychologically dangerous to understand this killer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ALIENIST")

BRUHL: (As Dr. Laszlo Kreisler) His acts are so wretched, so evil that only if I become him - if I run my knife through a helpless body and pluck innocent eyes from a horrified face, only then will I recognize that what drives me is not an absence of emotion - no - rather, a torrent of feeling, the kind that gives meaning and purpose to my own blackened soul.

DEGGANS: The tension between today's values and the morals of that time is what powers the show. The audience knows Kreisler's right when he faces down critics and insists that psychological and medical evidence can reveal the killer, predicting modern profiling and forensic technology. Kreisler's team includes a wealthy woman and two poor Jewish men resisting the sexism, classism and anti-Semitism of the time.

But Kreisler and his buddy John Moore are also wealthy white men, so they constantly benefit from the system they're rebelling against, which adds an odd note. "The Alienist" TV show is based on a popular book of the same name from the 1990s. It's a lushly rendered, gritty tale with a kind of nudity, gore and explicit themes often seen in today's quality TV shows. But it's still the largely predictable story.

It's also an obvious attempt by TNT to change its brand from the home of conventional dramas like "Major Crimes" and "Law & Order" reruns. But many viewers these days seem to want the comfort food of classic TV reboots and family dramas. I'll keep watching beyond the two episodes TNT let critics see early, but I suspect "The Alienist" isn't quite creative enough or conventional enough to be the home run that TNT needs.

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDOVICO EINAUDI'S "EXPERIENCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.