The Alienist Is the Grisliest Period Drama Yet

TNT’s new prestige series focuses on a doctor using criminal psychology to pursue a serial killer in 1890s New York.

Daniel Brühl as Dr. Laszlo Kreizler in 'The Alienist'

It says something about how fiercely The Alienist commits to discomfiting its audience that the most disturbing scene in the first two episodes isn’t when the camera disappears inside the darkness of a young boy’s mutilated eye socket, or even when it lingers on the syphilitic sores on the bloodied face of a shrieking asylum inmate. The new TNT series, based on the 1994 bestselling novel by Caleb Carr, is viscerally gruesome (literally visceral, in some cases), portraying a late 19th-century New York City that’s a fetid, teeming quagmire of disease, corruption, and iniquity. You want butchered bodies? Ten a penny. Pox-ridden psychopaths destined for the electric chair? The Alienist is a veritable grab bag of triggering visuals and nauseating images.

The cumulative effect of all this abasement, appropriately enough, is alienation. Which is a shame, because in its subtler moments the show offers some genuine chills, as when a corrupt, abusive police captain (David Wilmot) removes an eyelash from the face of Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), only for both of them to slowly process that his finger is—mysteriously—covered in blood. It gives some sense of what a more delicate take on the source material could have achieved. The Alienist—the fictional story of an early psychologist who uses criminal profiling to pursue a serial killer targeting young male sex workers—has been several decades in development, attached to multiple directors as a film before Cary Fukunaga (True Detective Season 1) helped adapt it for television. When Fukunaga was forced to step out by scheduling conflicts, the Belgian director Jakob Verbruggen took over. The result is a series that has all of the brooding intensity of Fukunaga’s HBO show, but little of the necessary narrative energy to pull it off.

In the era of Peak TV, more shows like this feel almost inevitable. The Alienist, filmed in Budapest, is reportedly eye-wateringly expensive, and studded with big names. In addition to Fanning, there’s Daniel Brühl (Inglourious Basterds) as Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, while Luke Evans (Beauty and the Beast) plays the Watson to Kreizler’s Sherlock, a New York Times portrait artist named John Moore. Some of the shows themes—the targeted murder of sex workers, the harassment of Fanning’s Sara—feel notably in tune with the present moment. But more often, the concept seems dated, mired in the ’90s obsession with serial killers and crime procedurals. Dr. Kreizler is a criminal investigator in the Thomas Harris mold, bent on catching his targets by submersing himself in their warped minds. “I must follow this wherever it goes, even if it leads me to the darkest pit of hell,” he pontificates in the first episode, after the murderer has taunted him by leaving a human organ wrapped in newspaper in the bottom of his carriage.

Brühl portrays Kreizler as an enigmatic obsessive who might have darker tendencies of his own. But the doctor is also a paragon of modern psychiatry, admonishing priests who preach against the sins of the flesh and advising parents whose sons want to wear their sisters’ clothes to accept them no matter what. It’s an anachronistic kind of virtue signaling that curdles awkwardly with the show’s leering, exploitative focus on human flesh. (It’s not just blood and gore: Sex scenes are inserted into the action for no obvious reason—in the opening scene to the book, John Moore is staying with his grandmother, but in the series, he’s visiting a brothel.) Sara, the first female employee of the New York Police Department, is an intriguing character, and Fanning employs a persuasive kind of defensive standoffishness to portray her ambition and vulnerability. Almost immediately, though, she’s inserted into a love triangle between Kreizler and Moore to add conflict to the newly formed investigative unit.

There are times when the series finds its tone. The underworld of 1890s New York is an enticingly sleazy one, filled with gangsters in chalk-stripe suits, dirty politicians being paid off, and the earnest real-life police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) trying to impose some moral order on the city. The city is also starkly unequal, with immigrants starving dozens to a room in slums while the powerful exchange idle chitchat over champagne at the opera. Given The Alienist’s oppressive grayscale and attention to detail, the contrast between the lives of the rich and the poor is striking. But the show’s overall joylessness makes it a slog, enhanced by the fact that the central investigation doesn’t feel like enough to pad out 10 episodes. There’s a reason procedurals tend to tackle cases of the week—when your subject matter is so unrelentingly grim, it helps to have the more frequent promise of an actual payoff.