'The Alienist' is a criminal-minds costume drama

Dakota Fanning, Daniel Bruhl, and Luke Evans in <em>The Alienist</em>. (Photo: TNT)
Dakota Fanning, Daniel Bruhl, and Luke Evans in The Alienist. (Photo: TNT)

A 10-episode series based on the Caleb Carr bestseller The Alienist comes to TNT on Monday night. It stars Daniel Bruhl as Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a psychologist who specializes in aberrant or criminal behavior. He swans around 1896 New York City in a heavy coat introducing himself as an alienist, and everyone seems to know what he’s referring to, although TNT needs to define the term for us at the top of each episode, as someone who investigates people who are “alienated from their own true natures.” In other words, we’re in for a serial-killer period piece here.

Someone’s killing young prostitutes in the city whose police commissioner is future-President Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty). Kreizler decides to investigate, aided by a “newspaper illustrator” — that means he draws pictures instead of taking photographs — named John Moore, played by Luke Evans. Together, Kreizler and Moore are a sort of good-looking, young Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, prowling back alleys for clues. They are regularly helped by a woman employed by the police department as a “typewriter” — that means she’s a secretary — named Sara Howard, played by Dakota Fanning.

The Alienist wants us to congratulate ourselves on our maturity as we watch the show’s protagonists reel in shock upon the discovery that among the murdered is a so-called “boy whore” who “dresses himself as a girl for the pleasure of men.” The show wants us to admire Kreizler as an adventurous rule-breaker when the cops say things to him like, “As usual, you’ve overstepped your bounds.” And the production wants us to disapprove of the sexist male snickers when Sara Howard says she is “the first woman to hold a position in the New York Police Department.”

In other words, The Alienist is a very self-congratulatory enterprise, filled with familiar stuff. Most familiar of all, perhaps, is the approach to crime-solving assumed by alienist Kreizler. Near the end of the first episode, the camera pulls in tightly against his frowning face as he ponders the motivations of the murderer, and in voice-over he tells us, “Only if I become him … only then will I come to understand what I truly am. I must see life as he sees it, feel pain as he feels it…” and on and on. This hero-thinks-like-the-villain criminal profiling is at least as old as Michael Mann’s great film Manhunter (1986) or as familiar as the past decade of Criminal Minds episodes. All the good acting here, and all the lush Gilded Age costuming, can’t distract us from the tedium of the storytelling.

The Alienist airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on TNT.

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