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.