TNT’s The Alienist

Looking for a binge-worthy show to keep you going? Check out The Alienist, a terrifying tale that in the realm of dark murder mysteries, goes just about as dark as you can go. A period piece produced by TNT and conveniently dropped onto Netflix in it’s entirety the other day, it’s one part Jack The Ripper with a twinge of True Detective, but the truth is it’s way more psychological and well constructed than any log-line description could give, and it should be seen, savoured and absorbed as one long film rather than episodic tv. Darker and more fucked up than anything really has been since season 1 of True Detective, it sticks to its guns and pulls forth a doozy of a crime story to put anyone’s hairs on edge. Set in the late 1800’s before the turn of the century, New York is slowly becoming the economic and cultural hub it is today, but there’s still long shadows cast by the primitive customs of the past, and in one of those shadows hides a serial killer, a phantom who preys on young boys and leaves viciously mutilated corpses behind. As each episode will remind you in writing, people who studied mental illness back then were called ‘Alienists’, because those afflicted were seen to be alienated from their true natures. One such alienist is Dr. Lazlo Kreisler (Daniel Brühl), an eccentric, difficult but altogether brilliant man who takes an immediate and laser focused interest in these crimes, with the help of his friend, crime scene illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans). Joining their crusade is Sarah Howard (Dakota Fanning) the first woman to work for the NYC police department and a plucky investigator herself. Orbiting them is a galaxy of characters, red herrings, dead ends, violent encounters, murders, and love triangles that stretch all the way from the slums and boy-whore brothels right up through the political ranks to New York’s richest and most powerful. It’s not an easy mystery to solve, for the three unconventional detectives, the bumbling, often corrupt police force or we as an audience, it’s a dense, compelling and very complex story with a lot of moving parts, well hidden clues and challenging story beats that demand attentiveness and force you to not look away, which is often an impulse in a horror story with so many atrocities marching across the screen (life, it seems, was incredibly rough for a good many people back then, especially in the Big Apple). The story pays a lot of attention to Kreisler’s deep fascination with the human condition, what makes a brain malfunction and cause the kind of behaviour we see here, and although one might get a little agitated at certain parts of the climax in the final episode, I believe that it wasn’t lazy storytelling but a very deliberate, unusual way to wrap up a story like this and says something important in the story arcs revolving around the human mind. The supporting cast is a rich, deep and rewarding patchwork quilt of young upcoming talent, familiar faces, brilliant cameos and veteran character actors. Brian Gerarty is perfectly cast as Teddy Roosevelt, commissioner of police and yes the same Roosevelt that would later go on to be President. Ted Levine earns sleaze points as Thomas Byrnes, the semi-retired chief of police who’s a slippery, untrustworthy devil with great influence over the worm of a new Captain Connor (David Wilmot, despicably good). Michael Ironside blusters in as a wealthy, powerful finance kingpin who is more disturbed by the ripple effect the killings have throughout the city than the actual murders themselves, as he sheepishly admits. Robert Wisdom and gorgeous Q’orianka Kilcher play loyal friends and pillars of Kreisler’s household, and the cast goes on with impressions from Sean Young, David Warner, Jackson Gann, Antonio Magro, Peter McRobbie, Bill Heck, Grace ‘Sarah Palmer’ Zabriskie and more. The heart of it lies with Brühl, Fanning and Evans though, who all three represent different factions of the human condition in various measure, from courage, compassion and intuition to persistence and empathy, their collective performances are spectacular and made me look at each artist in ways I never have, a hallmark of excellent, transformative work. I know there’s already clamour for a second season, and I want to see their further adventures as much as the next viewer, but I’m just as content with this season as it’s a standalone, beautifully bookended piece of work that thrives as a singular story, and is one of the best times I’ve had following a long-form series in a while.

-Nate Hill

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