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TV Review: The Alienist

01.17.2018

SYNOPSIS: The Alienist follows Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl, Rush), a brilliant and obsessive “Alienist” in the controversial new field of treating mental pathologies, who holds the key to hunting down a never-before-seen ritualistic killer murdering young boys. Based on the award-winning, fan-favorite novel by Caleb Carr, with standout performances from Luke Evans (The Girl on the Train) and Dakota Fanning (American Pastoral), The Alienist is a gripping, turn-of-the-century murder mystery like none other: the story of the emergence of the world’s most powerful city that will stop at nothing to bury its darkest secrets.

REVIEW: The police procedural drama is a format that has risen in popularity in recent years, but it is a genre that harkens all the way back to the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. While we have two television series based on Holmes, he is far from the only detective searching for killers and madmen on the small screen. Joining the fray is The Alienist starring Daniel Bruhl, Luke Evans and Dakota Fanning which hopes to differentiate itself from the slew of similarly themed shows on the airwaves. Luckily, there is something about The Alienist that keeps you watching and anticipating what will come next. Executive produced by Cary Fukunaga, The Alienist shares a lot in common with HBO’s True Detective in that both take a non-traditional approach to telling a serial killer story.

The eight episode series is based on Caleb Carr’s novel of the same name. The Alienist has long been in development as a feature film but the long form event series allows for a much deeper dive into the various characters. The series has echoes of Steven Soderbergh’s Cinemax series The Knick in that it presents a less than idealized look at New York City at the turn of the century. Set in 1896, Daniel Bruhl (CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR) plays the titular doctor, Lazlo Kreizler, who investigates a killer of male child prostitutes. Bruhl brings a methodical and tempered performance that shares more than a passing similarity to Sherlock Holmes himself. Here, his Doctor Watson comes in the form of New York Times illustrator John Moore, played by Luke Evans. Evans, who has starred in big budget films like BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, THE HOBBIT and FAST AND FURIOUS 6, plays against type as the sidekick who aids Dr. Kreizler in his investigation. The two actors have a great chemistry and make for one of the better partnerships to grace television in recent years. Dakota Fanning also stars as Sara Howard, secretary to New York Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (yes, that Teddy Roosevelt). Fanning is solid in a meaty role the likes she has not seen for quite some time.

The Alienist blends true American history with a fictional crime that makes for quite entertaining television. Aside from the main cast, most of the series is populated by recognizable actors like Robert Wisdom (The Wire), Brian Geraghty (Boardwalk Empire) and Q’orianka Kilcher (THE NEW WORLD). But what helps The Alienist avoid feeling like generic basic cable is the attention to detail. There was clearly a big budget ($5 million per episode) spent on this production as it looks like something you would find airing on HBO or AMC. The acting is top notch and the writing is great. The only issue I found with the series over the first two episodes made available for review is that the pacing seems to be a little off. I have no problem with a slowly paced drama but there are times where The Alienist doesn’t seem to know if it wants to be a thriller or something more meditative.

Writing duties on The Alienist come courtesy of DRIVE and THE WINGS OF THE DOVE scripter Hossein Amini who remains incredibly faithful to Caleb Carr’s novel. Many event series try to cram too much in to an eight episode order but The Alienist is peppered with a ton of quiet moments that add to the depth of each character and flesh them out as more than just caricatures. There is a lot of racism against Jewish, Italian and Irish characters in the series that replicate real world sentiments of the era, but they are not mined for shock value but instead add rumbling undercurrent to the climate of New York in the late 19th century that permeates the storyline of the series. Like The Knick and Mindhunter, The Alienist uses a period setting to accentuate the limitations that law enforcement had in trying to solve horrible crimes. Being set half a century before David Fincher's Mindhunter which showcases the development of the FBI's modern approach to hunting deviant killers, The Alienist shows the infancy of such approaches amidst a culture that would rather throw away the dregs of society and treat their senseless deaths as a form of population control.

Watching the show, I kept wondering how different the finished product would have looked had Fukunaga remained aboard as director, but helmer Jakob Verbruggen manages to not only hold his own with the True Detective filmmaker but also deliver in his own right. A veteran of series like House of Cards and Black Mirror, Verbruggen never idealizes New York City nor shirks the disturbing subject matter of The Alienist. This is definitely not a show for the squeamish and will stay with you long after each episode ends. The subject matter is no more risque than anything seen on shows like NCIS or Law and Order, but the presentation is such that this show feels like a Merchant Ivory production. The Alienist is definitely a blend of genres that should draw in multiple types of viewers, but I am not sure that any particular audience is going to appreciate everything about this show.

The Alienist is a show with some flaws, primarily in the uneven pacing, but the subject matter is engaging enough that you will be able to look past that off the bat. Daniel Bruhl gets the bulk of the screen time in the first two episodes which leaves Dakota Fanning and Luke Evans without a truly meaty scene to sink into. By the end of the second episode, Evans' character is left in a compromising position that could take the series in a very interesting place. I found myself on the edge of my seat at multiple points in the episodes I watched while disengaged in just as many others. I did have to go back and revisit several scenes to make sure I was following all of the characters and plot threads. A lot is introduced regarding supporting characters that I am afraid may be left unanswered in such a short event series. But I am definitely willing to return for all eight episodes to find out what happens next.

 
The Alienist is slated to premiere on Monday, Jan. 22 at 9 p.m. ET/PT across TNT platforms.

Source: JoBlo.com

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