Back in the day I used to read books before they became movies. I would have read The Alienist, Caleb Carr’s 1994 page turner, anyway–A Silence of the Lambs-type serial killer story set in 1896 New York had its hooks in me from its very description, and I was amply rewarded. A year or so later, for a story I was writing, I had the opportunity to visit Hollywood’s legendary Western Costume, a repository for filmdom finery. I got to see some of the lovely creations for the adaptation, which was to be directed by Philip Kaufman. It was due in 1997.
Twenty-one years later, it’s here. Not as a movie, much less a movie from the director of The Right Stuff, but as a ten-part TV miniseries, which begins airing tonight on TNT. The network, known for lengthy blocks of CW reruns and dropping two-hour films into commercial-clotted three-hour slots, is hoping to grab some of that Peak TV action, and I’m pleased to report that after viewing the first two episodes The Alienist is in good hands. But after years of “creative differences,” etc., the material’s peak may have passed.
The miniseries, too, had some backstage drama, when director Cary Fukunaga (True Detective) departed, leaving behind one script and an executive producer credit. Whatever seams that left don’t show–Carr also contributed to the writing, as did Oscar nominee Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove) and others. The first two episodes are directed by Jakob Verbruggen, a veteran of Black Mirror and London Spy, both fine credentials for the spooky, sooty world of The Alienist. The very best thing about The Alienist, the show, is that the book has leapt off the page and onto your screen (biggest possible, give your phone a rest)–the estimated $50 million budget is all up there. Shot-in-Budapest productions set in the present day always give themselves away when they attempt American locales. Here, however, the time and place, judiciously augmented by quality digital effects, are perfectly rendered, and so far as I know the actors are attired in the same detailed wear I saw in the Clinton era.
A bit threadbare is the storyline. What distinguished the book was Carr’s immense research; the “beats” has already been set by Lambs author Thomas Harris, and he didn’t freshen the template, in the way that the film Seven (1995) did. In a reverse of my favored pattern, I watched the first season of the excellent Netflix adaptation of Mindhunter, shepherded by Seven director David Fincher, before I read the book, and after reading it you realize how incalculable the debt “mindhunter” John E. Douglas and his FBI cohorts are owed by the entire serial murder genre. Early on in The Alienist there’s a direct quote to their 20th century profiling methodology, as a disturbed child is examined by the eerily empathetic Dr. Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl), whose practice of “alienism” is used (and sometimes abused) by the New York police department in their crime solving. It’s amusing (and a twist on the deductive reasoning of Sherlock Holmes, whom Carr revisited in a subsequent novel), but a reminder that this ground is well-trodden.
The Alienist begins with the discovery of a badly mutilated corpse, that of a boy prostitute who dressed as a girl. Summoned to investigate by police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (the Ragtime-like interweaving of real-life figures is one of the novel’s charms), Kreizler determines that the murder is part of a pattern. With the wary patronage of Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty), who doesn’t entirely trust his psychological probing, the alienist forms his own investigative unit, whose primary members are John Moore (Luke Evans), a louche journalist extremely familiar with brothels, and Sarah Howard (Dakota Fanning), an NYPD secretary eager for Clarice Starling-like “advancement” in her field.
As a movie, The Alienist would likely have been cramped. As a TV miniseries, it comes at the right time–changing standards mean the sordid details of child murder and prostitution can be more frankly presented than even just a few years ago. Visually, there’s plenty to raise the hackles, as the chillingly crepuscular cinematography alights on many a thing that goes bump in the night. Thus far, the look outpaces the dialogue, which is more functional than scintillating. But the tautly coiled Bruhl, the devil-may-care Evans, and the pallidly beautiful Fanning are adeptly cast, and should be good company unless the show peters out, a common problem with Peak TV and its many binge-y hours. For now, though, The Alienist is just what the doctor ordered, if you need a serial killing fix.