Critics who type faster than they think sometimes insist that a city emphasized in a work of popular narrative art is actually like “a character.” That cliché’s roots, I expect, grow from a general disinterest in setting as a foundational element of fiction, and a tendency to anthropomorphize anything in popular narrative art that exhibits a glint of authorial personality. Woody Allen’s out-of-time Manhattan pulses to pre-war jazz and is curiously empty of people who look like they wouldn’t socialize with the director himself? Then it’s actually another of his characters — like them, it seems incapable of growth or change.
New York is not a character in The Alienist, in that it can’t make a choice or get killed off by the writers. But it is the show’s star, its beating heart, the thing that makes a sometimes listless crime procedural irresistible. Even back in 1994, when Caleb Carr’s historical mystery/thriller hit bookstores, its serial-killer plotting had a weary roteness to it. What was too familiar almost 25 year ago now, in TNT’s TV adaptation, plays like a straight-up parody of the genre: A brilliant killer on the loose in 1896 New York can’t resist sending clues to the man hunting him down. And that hunter gets told by the new commissioner of the NYPD — Teddy Roosevelt, no less — that there’s not a separate set of “rules” for him.
But the mystery plot has always been secondary to The Alienist’s appeal. Meet Carr’s vintage New York — imagine I’ve pasted here a meme image of a chef kissing her fingers. In prose, the boroughs stalked by The Alienist’s squad of misfit detectives seemed as ripely dark and complex as the London of Bleak House, as grippingly lurid as anything in the penny dreadfuls. Carr was as direct in its depictions of violence and corruption as good tabloid reporting, as breezily comprehensive in its tours of swank restaurants and gutbucket brothels as a rake’s secret guidebook. Or at least that’s how The Alienist came to life for a teenager invited into streets so grubby/stabby that the paperback should have come with a tetanus shot. Carr’s New York wasn’t just another character with discoverable human motives: It was a world that commanded the mind long after the reader has run out of pages to turn.
My fascination with Carr’s lost city certainly colors my response to TNT’s new series, both for better and worse. The pilot’s opening sequence builds to a midnight dash over the East River along the spine of “the new bridge” — the Williamsburg. TNT has budget enough to attempt to seriously realize this vision, and the episode’s director (Jakob Verbruggen) emphasizes the vertiginous terror of the ascent. He takes his time with the scene, letting us feel it. But at the same time much wonder is lost: There’s nothing so visionary or persuasive in the computer-assisted re-creation that it can possibly best Carr’s own description or a reader’s imaginative rendering of such.
Still, The Alienist is pretty good with this stuff. I appreciate the occasional high-cheese camera flourish, such as a plunge from above the bridge into the blacked-out eyehole of the pilot’s first corpse. The first two episodes each build to a set piece in the city’s bowels, one in a factory’s attic and the other in a brothel catering to men who prefer boys dressed as women. Both sequences thrum with suspense, with the possibility that something wicked or desperate lurks in the shadows. The brothel scenes, to my mind, avoid a retrograde transphobia by emphasizing how the apparently straight point-of-view dude character finds this all alluring rather then terrifying — and by making clear his empathy for the sex workers, who could be targets of the series’ murderer. Meanwhile, one highlight of the book — a lavish and highly choreographed dinner at Delmonico’s — gets rushed through on TV, the creators more committed to moving the plot and building the team than to reveling in a gustatory parade. Please, someone should pitch the cooking channels on this idea: elaborate re-creations of period meals at the world’s great restaurants.
The less spectacular visions of the past are more quietly convincing: Note the way that Dakota Fanning, playing the NYPD’s first female secretary, hoists her skirts as she mashes her way down a muddy avenue. The street life around her is agreeably chaotic, the tenements and storefronts behind her fascinating to viewers trying to work out what intersection she’s at but, for normal people, properly subordinated to the background. More workaday interior scenes, though, suffer from the high-wattage Janusz Kaminski-inspired lighting tricks that make so many network TV dramas look ridiculous: One grand chamber at Bellevue Hospital has the same pure-white light blasting into windows at opposite ends of the room. The sun is directly above both?
The actual characters here benefit from being embodied by good actors, though the roles are thin. Fanning smartly suggests, at the edges of her scenes, the effort it takes her Sara Howard to work up the brass to seize what she wants in a world that cinches her in a corset. The show’s somewhat rote attacks on corset culture might go over better if its creators weren’t also so fascinated by cleavage and teasing near-nudity. The first two episodes offer two scenes of Fanning’s character on display in her underthings, worrying over her clothes. You know how, while watching a new movie, you can see where basic cable would put in commercials? The Alienist is basic cable where you can see where premium cable executives would insist on adding nipples.
Luke Evans plays a handsome bruiser of a cartoonist, an alpha dude only slightly embarrassed to learn that his friends and colleagues know that the best way to get hold of him at night is to ring round to the brothel. Evans’s cocksure Gaston was the lone highlight in last year’s breathtakingly pointless Beauty and the Beast remake; here he plays callowness for subtle pathos, his character taking dumb risks to prove he’s smart enough to contribute to the investigation.
In most cop/crime narratives, Evans’s brooding tough with a dark side would serve as protagonist; here, though, that role goes to Daniel Bruhl, as the alienist himself, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a sort of pre-modern practitioner of the psychological profiling of criminal suspects. Bruhl plays him as tweedily confident but pointedly humane, an intellectual celebrity eager to tell the church and concerned parents that it’s neither the devil nor mental illness that makes pubescent teens masturbate. Horrified but fascinated by a killer preying upon young boys dressed as girls, he convinces Commissioner Roosevelt to let him run an off-the-books investigation, one that — he vows — will demand that he enter the mind of the killer himself, even if that means walking to the very gates of hell.
That’s the promise and disappointment of The Alienist all at once: You know that old New York hellgate will likely be fascinating, but the speech he gives about it, and the whole project of entering a murderer’s mind? I’m sorry, but that’s exactly the same nonsense declared by the woman-cop hero of every ’90s Cinemax erotic thriller who had to go undercover at the strip club to catch a killer. More New York, less alienating, please.
The Alienist premieres January 22 on TNT.