Review: ‘The Alienist’ is a grisly tale of murder, madness and class division

The class divide in late 19th century New York City is just as pertinent to the murders as the killer himself.
TNT. Dakota Fanning and Daniel Bruhl in The Alienist.
TNT. Dakota Fanning and Daniel Bruhl in The Alienist.
Published Jan. 19, 2018

A doctor, an illustrator and a police department secretary are tasked by a young Theodore Roosevelt to conduct a secret investigation into a series of murders in 19th century New York City.

The macabre tale is the focus of the new TNT series The Alienist, premiering Monday with a star-studded cast: Dakota Fanning (The Runaways, The Twilight Saga), Luke Evans (Beauty and the Beast) and Daniel Bruhl (Inglourious Basterds).

The series is set in 1896 and is based on the bestselling 1994 novel by Caleb Carr. It's taken decades to bring Carr's story to the screen, but the show executive produced by Cary Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation, True Detective) and Eric Roth (House of Cards, Forrest Gump) is well worth the wait.

The pulpy period drama may not rewrite the genre, but it's a solid addition that brings some fresh gore and a scripted peek into the beginnings of forensic science.

Bruhl is the aforementioned doctor, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a modern-day forensic psychologist dubbed an alienist in the late 1800s. The people he studies and treats are said to be "alienated from their true selves."

Evans is John Moore, a New York Times illustrator whom Dr. Kreizler tasks with sketching the grisly murder of a young boy sex worker found atop the unfinished Williamsburg Bridge.

They're both solid leads, with Bruhl playing the softspoken brain with a humane side alongside Evans' brash, emotional and even squeamish Moore.

Amidst the seedy underbelly of 19th century New York City and intense corruption within the NYPD, newly-named police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) ends up tasking Moore and Dr. Kreizler with a secret investigation into a string of murders the police have brushed under the rug.

Joining them is the no-nonsense secretary, Sara Howard (Fanning). She's the first woman to be hired by the NYPD and has a goal of becoming the first female detective. Fanning plays a stunning proto-feminist with an intimidating intensity and intelligence that are unmatched in her counterparts.

The series reads like a mix of True Detective and Mindhunter, but set in a time plagued with superstitions, sexism, classism and general misunderstandings.

On the surface, the show is a must-watch for any true crime buff. It's a good ol' fashioned whodunnit with some added gore and intriguing 19th century fashions to keep things interesting.

But The Alienist is also evocative with a historical backdrop that's both cinematically gorgeous and adds thought-provoking substance. Beneath its disturbing details is a commentary on turn-of-the-century class division.

From the nightmarish Bellevue psychiatric hospital and the claustrophobic downtown brothels to the cushy, gaslit homes of the Manhattan elite and the volatile police department, The Alienist presents a variety of sets and characters that explore those distinct class divisions that have just as much to do with the murders as the killer himself.

Contact Chelsea Tatham at Follow @chelseatatham.


The Alienist

9 p.m. Monday, TNT