It takes us back to a curious past, but The Alienist offers nothing much worth exploring.
What’s unfortunate about The Alienist, the latest US network TV to be acquired by Netflix for streaming in the UK, is that it may have been fresh and original not too long ago. Written by Caleb Carr, the book of the same name, on which this ten-episode limited series is based, was published in 1994 proving a best-seller. It was touted for film adaptation straight away, with the rights sold to Paramount, but the property languished in development hell for a number of years before it was finally decided that television would be a more suitable home. In the meantime, crime drama on the small screen became immensely popular. And lots of it has been quite good. The Alienist revolves around early attempts to apply criminal psychology in the field of murder investigation. To its own comparative detriment, it draws on ideas and themes that have been thoroughly explored in superior shows – Hannibal, Sherlock, Dexter, even last year’s Mindhunter, just to name a few, handle these subjects with much greater subtlety and style.
More precisely, The Alienist finds Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) and newspaper illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans) teaming up with police secretary Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) in order to solve a series of grisly murders concerning boy prostitutes. The setting is New York, the year 1896. The show has fun with this period, visiting brothels and the opera as part of a varied locale that is in parts lively and revolting, with splendid attention to detail in costuming and production design. The notable likes of J.P. Morgan and Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) appear, Roosevelt in an extended role, to give The Alienist that playful sense of alternate history. But there is little here to really dig your teeth into. The central narrative feels derivative and tired, with characters that are neither relatable or compelling. The subplots are simply boring, the music just fine. It’s a waste of a talented cast who struggle with stiff dialogue: the accents of Brühl and Evans are wishy-washy, while Fanning fares little better with a consistently monotonous delivery.
The first episode in particular is unintentionally hilarious at times, which something this dark should never be. It ends on a grating monologue by Kreizler that is all too familiar, all too pretentious. The show does get better as it goes on, but it remains riddled with clichés. It’s a shame. Cary Joji Fukunaga was initially on board to direct all ten episodes, but now acts only in executive producer capacity with minor script duties. His unique voice can be felt marginally with a credits sequence that is eerily similar to that of the first season of True Detective, of which Fukunaga directed every minute. You wonder what might have been if Fukunaga had taken a more hands-on role. As it is, The Alienist lacks a distinctive style. Its stale plot does little to make up for it.
The Alienist is available to stream on Netflix now.