DVD review: “The Alienist” (2018)
Produced by: E. Max Frye, Steve Golin, Rosalie Swedlin, Chris Symes, Jakob Verbruggen, Cary Joji Fukunaga, Eric Roth
Featuring: Daniel Brühl, Luke Evans, Brian Geraghty, Robert Ray Wisdom, Douglas Smith, Matthew Shear, Q’orianka Kilcher, Matt Lintz, Dakota Fanning
Kreizler[to Sara]: I’ve made my life’s work the study of the human mind. And now my own mind deceives me. I have cause to hate God for what he did to her, and yet I find myself believing in him, humbled by his awful mystery.
The psychological thriller drama, “The Alienist”, set in 1896, where a series of gruesome murders of boy prostitutes has gripped New York City, frightening many of the populace in this burgeoning city. Newly appointed police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt calls upon Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a criminal psychologist and newspaper illustrator John Moore to conduct the investigation in secret. Joining them in the probe is Sara Howard, the headstrong secretary to the police commissioner, as well as the Jewish twin brothers Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, both detective sergeants in the NYPD.
This is the first adaption of a Caleb Carr novel, probably his most well-known as well as a book that predates the way in which narratives are structured within the confines of the television crime genre that has become not only commonplace but immensely popular among the masses. The novel was unique as is the adaption of confining it’s time to 1896 New York featuring some of the real people that helped usher in what is now known as the modern New York. We have as central figures Theodore Roosevelt and J. P. Morgan whose names are still talked about to this day. Of course, we all know Roosevelt who became the 26thPresident of the US, what many may not know was that he served in the office of what would become known as then Police Commissioner of New York. This central conceit of real events and people taking place in a real city that are narratively held together by a serial killer is one of the shows greatest strengths, but at times can actually become a flaw, if you know some of the history it will become clear that some characters while being placed in jeopardy are quite safe, historically speaking. For me as a fan of the novel this did not affect by enjoyment at all, this is a television show I have been looking forward to for years, it did not disappoint, in fact it was a refreshing look back in time not only in its location but its meaning that joins psychoanalysis, film, woman’s rights, politics, the coalescence of the public works as well as the evolution of the police force.
As with most good adaptations this television series has the very feel of New York and the Five Points that exist today – the five points was famously the setting for Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” (2002). There is no doubt that this looks like an authentic piece of history and maintains some of the ideas that Carr had in his mind when writing the book, that is that the people of 1896 are not so different to the people of 2018. The population are making their own very unique ways through life, there is crime as well as extreme gaps in wealth, the burgeoning class system is on parade as is the extreme social differences between men and woman, whites and all other cultures and many more issues that are alive today in one form or another. Of course, these issues are not new, having been covered in all forms of media since time immemorial, which may seem to make “The Alienist” a little behind the times, which it is. However, what is unique about it is the fact that these issues segue in and out of the main narrative, which is primarliy the hunt for a gruesome killer, by a team of seemingly disparate individuals who through different means and methods strive to save not only lives but their beloved city as well. They are under pressure from all quarters of the city, of course those same quarters seem intent on covering up very dirty laundry.
This is a big budgeted adaptation, it would have to be to have the correct set decorators, locations, costuming and of course the right actors to play period roles believably as well as the chemistry to believe that some have known each other for years. The cast is led by three main characters, that of Daniel Brühl as Alienist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, Luke Evans as John Moore an artist and Dakota Fanning as Sara Howard a woman of modernity if ever there was one. All three of these accomplished actors have led major motion pictures on their own so it is a coup to have them in what is a transplanted gothic horror. They share the screen together and apart, if this show is based around any one person it is Brühl’s Doctor who is not only a practitioner of a new science, psychanalysis, but also like his patients hides much beneath the surface. These secrets are slowly revealed, or at least brought to the surface as each new episode not only reveals something about him, but the killer as well as New York itself. In somewhat subordinate roles Luke Evans is drawn into a cat and mouse game not only with the killer but his costars as well, he pursues both Kreizler and Sara in different ways for very different reasons, like his co-stars he is stuck in a kind of limbo that he is able to break out of because of the killer they are all in pursuit of. However, the character that breaks against the grain of the age is most definitely Sara who is a kind of woman out of time, not only is she forward thinking, she also takes control at every moment she is able to in a competent way, Sara is possibly the most honestly assured character in the show, besides the killer of course. In fact, Sara teaches the men in her life lessons about not only being men, but also how she should be treated as well as listened to, Sara is a catalyst within the narrative of the show at points driving it forward, not being dissuaded by failure or setbacks like the men are at almost every turn – she is possibly the bravest individual within the show as well Kreizler and John Moore are battling their own demons both physical and mental.
On the production side of things “The Alienist” has some exciting producers, writers and directors that really lend the show some impressive credentials indeed. Initially brought on as the main director, the creator of the first season of the excellent HBO “True Detective” (2016 – present) Cary Fukunaga is aboard as producer and writer, his stamp is all over the series, it really is a loss not to have him at the helm of all the episodes. Master filmmaker and storyteller John Sayles is also present as writer, once again Sayles is an experienced writer/director who not only understands character but in harnessing those characters into the narrative of the show feeding back into the plot. There are of course other writers, directors and producers involved, they are all listed above and below, doing sterling work. The main reason that this show holds together in look, feel, thematic explorations and a myriad of other accomplishments is because from one episode to another all of the parts come together not straying or deviating from an obvious plan, so that these ten episodes play very well together, which means it is eminently bingeable, so be warned, once you begin this journey it will be very hard to pause it even for a short time.
What is interesting is that in the viewing of this taught adaptation the viewer will easily recognize aspects of “The Alienist” that are at once familiar, in that there are tropes associated with the genre that fit into a modern narrative vernacular. There are many examples of this throughout the plot, one of the biggest involves the real character of Teddy Roosevelt who is attempting to bring the police department into some sort of regimented force that will serve the public good, he is unable to investigate directly so has two outsiders, the aforementioned Kreizler, John Moore and to a lesser extent Sara. Roosevelt is also fighting against the upper class that exists and is protected by politicians and others which he too is trying to break free of. In fact, Roosevelt is a maverick of sorts who is incorruptible much like the men and women who are investigating the killings, he actually recognizes what they are doing and so lets them have their way with their investigation. One of the great aspects of the show is Roosevelt who at the outset may seem like a shill for the powerful, but quickly you understand that he may be the purest person in the entire story, what you see with his character is what you get – it is no wonder he was able to become the US President. There are many other examples of tropes, one of the more obvious and fun is a section where Kreizler and Moore pay a visit to a prison where a child rapist is being held, this is straight from Thomas Harris’ novel (later to be filmed) ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ where Clarice Starling visits Hannibal for some possible lead in her own serial killer case – coincidentally it was filmed as a gothic prison eerily similar to the one in “The Alienist”.
This is not to say that the recognition of tropes is a negative aspect of this production, it is true that normally if a story is filled with recognizable tropes it has a knock-on effect to the production, it can mean for example that the series lacks originality or there are short cuts being taken for a variety of reasons – sometimes budgetary or sometimes to create narrative links. However, in the case of “The Alienist” these tropes, in my mind, are presented so blatantly for very different narrative reasons. What we are witnessing is a proposed first time for these tropes, in a setting over a hundred years ago with the possibility of the first serial killer, as well as the littering of mentally ill individuals scattered throughout New York high as well as low society. The types of people that litter these tropes are truly original as we see how easy it was to get away with crimes for long periods of times. We also see something that I always enjoy the ‘murder board’ that is common place in nearly all crime shows, here though we are seeing the map of madness through the eyes of a psychiatrist – it is excellent storytelling.
One of the more interesting aspects of this show as well as the novel upon which it is based is the incorporation of psychology and the new technology of cinema, something that has been replicated in other stories. It is no coincidence that psychoanalysis was born around the same time as moving pictures, specifically the mass audience experience that we witness early in the series. There is no doubt a link between psychoanalysis, dreams and the way in which Freud worked, asking his patients to describe scenes of their past or what was occurring in their dreams. In fact, in “The Alienist” we see Moore at the movies then later have a particularly personal dream – a coincidence? There is no such thing.
On the surface “The Alienist” may seem like a run of the mill period piece about a serial killer but it is so much more than that, I would go so far as to say it is one of the best new television series this year. It has many themes that are not only as relevant today as they were a hundred years ago but it combines it without preaching or sermonizing in ways some current television could learn from. The expert way in which narrative devices are balanced with tension as well as the incorporation of new and interesting characters is so well done it will remind you of a series like “True Detective”, the first series that is. In my opinion this is a must watch, seek it out immediately.
Episode One: “The Boy on the Bridge”
Written by: Hossein Amini/Directed by: Jakob Verbruggen
The discovery of the mutilated corpse of a boy prostitute leads a psychologist to link the crime to the earlier murder of a child patient. He enlists the help of his college friend, a newspaper illustrator, to gather evidence in the case.
Episode Two: “A Fruitful Partnership”
Written by: Hossein Amini and E. Max Frye/Directed by: Jakob Verbruggen
Kreizler looks for other victims of the serial killer. Sara brings in a vital clue. Kreizler treats Sara, Moore, Marcus and Lucius to Delmonico’s and informs them they will be teaming up to catch the killer.
Episode Three: “Silver Smile”
Written by: Gina Gionfriddo/Directed by: Jakob Verbruggen
Use of the innovative new procedure of fingerprinting leads the team to discover crucial evidence is missing. Kreizler and Moore interview a witness to find out what happened to Moore at the brothel.
Episode Four: “These Bloody Thoughts”
Written by: Gina Gionfriddo and Cary Joji Fukunaga/Directed by: James Hawes
Sara and Kreizler posit on the ability to kill. Moore goes on a date. Byrnes and Connor eye potential suspects. Roosevelt is under scrutiny from the public.
Episode Five: “Hildebrandt’s Starling”
Written by: E. Max Frye/Directed by: James Hawes
The team build a profile for the killer. Moore and Sara share an intimate moment. Kreizler gets advice from an old mentor. Roosevelt finally takes action.
Episode Six: “Ascension”
Written by: E. Max Frye/Directed by: Paco Cabezas
The team set a trap to catch the killer. Moore visits a friend. Kreizler is filled with self-doubt over the investigation. Roosevelt is part of an event with the city elite. Sara looks into Kreizler’s past.
Episode Seven: ” “Many Sainted Men”
Written by: John Sayles/Directed by: Paco Cabezas
Kreizler and Moore follow a new lead. Sara visits a hospital which forces her to confront her past. Cyrus recovers from his injuries. Byrnes and Conner are plotting against the team. Marcus and Lucius follow a clue.
Episode Eight: “Psychopathia Sexualis”
Written by: John Sayles/Directed by: David Petrarca
Kreizler and Moore travel to DC. Sara goes rogue in her pursuit of the truth. Lucius confides a secret to Marcus. Byrnes and Connor tighten their stranglehold on the investigation
Episode Nine: “Requiem”
Written by: Hossein Amini/Directed by: Jamie Payne
Kreizler mourns Mary’s death while Sara pushes the team to forge ahead. Moore believes the killer is poised to strike again. Cyrus seeks revenge.
Episode Ten: “Castle in the Sky”
Written by: Cary Joji Fukunaga & John Sayles & Chase Palmer/Directed by: Jamie Payne
Kreizler confronts the demons of his past. Moore tell Sarah the truth. Conner takes matters into his own hands. The team closes in on the killer as time is running out.