Characters stride through lushly detailed environments in “The Alienist,” TNT’s new period drama. As richly clad men and women arrive for an elaborate dinner party, the camera lingers on the beautiful Rococo plasterwork strewn across a string of gorgeous rooms in a restaurant. A city street hums with vitality, displaying dozens of different kinds of New York residents hustling their ways through the late 19th Century. An upper-class sitting room has an almost oppressive number of patterns and layers; stiff sofas are crowded by dainty tables and ornate shelves on which yet more elaborate items rest.
If only the show’s dramatic engine and characters boasted that kind of detail. As it is, “The Alienist,” which is based on the Caleb Carr novel of the same name, comes off as a rote, by-the-numbers serial killer drama.
If one were assembling a TV show about a ritualistic killer, these elements would likely appear on the most basic checklist: A protagonist/investigator who ponders the ways in which he should think like the killer in order to catch him; a sidekick who offers exposition and has a few adventures while chasing clues; a woman who occasionally offers help and is there partly to make the case that serial-killer adventures are not just the province of white men; scantily clad prostitutes who, when not dead, are used as props that occasionally utter bittersweet pronouncements; and elaborately staged corpses that are deemed “works of theater” and have less impact the more the camera returns to their grisly poses.
Given that it’s set in the late 1800s, “The Alienist” occupies the period-piece subcategory of the serial killer genre. But unlike “Penny Dreadful” or even “The Knick,” both of which depicted the roiling passions and psychological and medical obsessions of the era, the time frame does not add much to “The Alienist,” aside from the expected array of corsets and elaborate mustaches.
One unusual thing about the drama: It features very young prostitutes — children, really — many of whom don the dresses and ribbons of Victorian girls. These characters tend to be male, and they not infrequently end up menaced or dead. This interlocking array of subjects — sex work, the exploitation of children, the status of those children as people whom we would, in this day and age, likely call transgender — all require a deft and considered approach, given how easily these elements could reinforce dangerous stereotypes and dodgy tropes. But a key issue with “The Alienist” is that it generally treats subtlety as an unwelcome intruder that should be smashed with a hammer.
“You represent the good that people want to believe is in all of us,” Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) says early on to the affable John Moore (Luke Evans). It’s a line of dialogue that seems to indicate that the creative team doesn’t trust the members of the audience to pick up subtext on their own. All in all, there is very little psychological or emotional nuance in the first two episodes, which is a problem, given that the entire drama revolves around a psychologist trying to figure out what a killer is thinking. But it doesn’t take long for “The Alienist” to make it plain that it cares most about surfaces and appearances, not about what goes on in its characters’ minds.
Kreizler is not, of course, a psychologist or psychiatrist; he is a “alienist,” a precursor of the mental health professionals of today. He is a remarkably non-judgmental man, as alienists go; he tries to understand the motivations of those he treats, and he shuns the kinds of spiritual or moral condemnations that were generally favored at the time.
As is so often the case with TV therapists, he consults with the police department, which in this drama is run by commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty). Roosevelt conforms to every stereotype of about management types in law enforcement; he is alternately frustrated and intrigued by the inroads Kreizler and his rogue-ish illustrator friend Moore make in a pesky murder investigation. It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that one of our former presidents will, at some point, castigate a murder investigator on TV for being “too damn close to the case!”
Dakota Fanning plays Sara Howard, a police secretary who assists Moore and Kreizler, sometimes clandestinely. Fanning, like Brühl and Evans, is an essentially appealing actor, but the interactions of the characters run along predictable lines: Kreizler muses about the mind of the murderer, Moore gets drawn into the investigation despite his best intentions, and Howard faces endless discrimination. As was the case with “The Knick,” “The Alienist” depicts rampant corruption in various municipal departments, but many of its law-breaking characters are one-dimensional villains who come quite close to literally twirling their mustaches.
It’s hard not to be distracted by the settings of the Budapest-shot series, in part because they’re so much more elaborate and interesting than the people on the screen. Kreizler may not know what makes the killer he’s chasing tick, but the machinery behind this handsome but empty drama is all too apparent.