Before He Kills Again (Series Review: “The Alienist”)


A disturbing investigation into a series of gruesome murders in turn of the century New York City, introducing controversial new methods in criminal forensics. Based on the spectacular 1994 novel that read more like historical fiction, The Alienist illustrates a brutal world of poverty and privilege on the precipice of social and political change.


SnapShot Plot

New York City in 1896 was a city split in two. Uptown and around Central Park there was the rarefied baronial splendor of mansions set in the Belle Epoque style, owned by aristocrats and tycoons of industry with last names such as Morgan, Astor and Roosevelt. Downtown it was the seething streets of overcrowded tenements teeming with mostly Irish and Italian immigrants who scraped by in squalid living conditions, places where disease, violence and abuse were rampant.

Among the standard fare of brothels and bars existed a subset of the aberrant sex trade: underage male prostitution. In these houses of horror, young boys (mostly misfits and runaways) dressed as girls and ‘worked’ the rough crowd of men from all walks of life. When one of these boys is discovered sadistically murdered and mutilated, it’s up to the newly installed police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt (future President of the United States) to find some answers. He’s vowed to clean up the corruption which has stained the reputation of the NYC police force, but finds himself completely out-manned by the cops themselves and their thuggish approach to law enforcement. A progressive at heart, Roosevelt secretly enlists the aid of alienist, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (intensely played by German actor Daniel Brühl) a physician whose interest is in the underlying psychology of criminal behaviour. At the time, it was thought that the mentally ill were actually alienated from their true natures, hence those studying them were labeled Alienists.  Roosevelt’s secretary, Sara Howard (in a luminous, central performance by Dakota Fanning) is an early Feminist, an unabashedly ambitious young woman whose goal is to be the first female detective in the NYC police department. At first Sara is the liaison between her boss, Roosevelt and Dr. Kreizler, who engages his longtime friend, John Moore (in a fine performance by Luke Evans) to work with him on the case. It’s not long before the murders starting stacking up and Sara emerges as the detective she’s destined to become. This small group of outsiders is joined by two Jewish brothers, the Isaacsons, who hope to bring real forensic science into police work. Eventually, inevitably, they each are drawn into a web of suspicion and danger as they try desperately to take a monster off the streets. This is The Alienist



Parting Shot

For those of you who marveled at the historically accurate period backdrop of 1896 New York City, you’ll be shocked to learn that the entire downtown scene, as well as the mansions of the city’s upper crust society, was an enormous set built from scratch on the outskirts of Budapest in Hungary. I urge you to watch this short video on the painstakingly realistic production, hosted by actor, Luke Evans:

It’s no surprise that the production detail on The Alienist rises to unparalleled perfection. When the novel hit bookshelves in 1994, film rights were immediately purchased by Paramount Studios, followed by a decades long acrimony with author, Caleb Carr who was unhappy with every attempt on the studio’s part to adapt the story to the big screen. With the advent of streaming and the new Golden Age of Television, the project was finally ushered over to TNT, which committed to making what has been reported as the most expensive series in the cable channel’s history, costing $9 million per episode. Strangely, though, Carr has disassociated himself from the show, even trying to remove his name from the production credits.

If the narrative comes across as a bit plodding in the first few episodes, with heavy-handed feminist/immigrant/antisemitic tropes getting in the way of good storytelling and characterizations, I urge you to stick with this series until the nail-biting end. You’ll find yourself glued to the suspense filled crime thriller it is to its core. And if it seems unbelievably dark to the point of murky, one can only imagine how grimy and unsavory that world must have been, if you found yourself on the wrong street at night.

The Alienist is presently streaming on TNT On Demand. Starting April 19, Season One one will be available to stream on Netflix, everywhere around the globe except France and the U.S.

If your local cable provider doesn’t offer TNT, here’s how you can watch this series for free:

SUBSCRIBE: Download the TNT App:

YouTube Trailer:

Tour of the Budapest Set:

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