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TNT's 'The Alienist' is a Grim Tale of Murder and Immigrant Life
January 22, 2018  | By David Hinckley

TNT’s long-awaited adaptation of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist captures some of the book’s allure. It also illustrates why the TV version took so many years to develop.

Premiering Monday at 9 p.m. ET, The Alienist loses some of its intensity when we watch actual characters going through the process of trying to figure out who is killing male child prostitutes in late 19th century New York.

The filming skirts some of the most potentially graphic visuals, like close-ups of a mutilated child’s corpse, though it is not possible to avoid verbal descriptions and still tell Carr’s story.

A warning, then: The Alienist is not for those who would find such material disturbing. 

The first of the 10 episodes commissioned for the first season starts with the single murder of one young immigrant boy who for business purposes had been dressed as a young girl.

The depravity of this killing, at a time when authorities and much of the populace accepted gruesome violence as part of immigrant life, leads newly appointed Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty, top, right) to see if he can get quietly get some answers.

He contracts with Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl, top, center), an “alienist” whose work is regarded with suspicion by many old-style law enforcement people. The alienist of that day was what we’d call a psychologist, and one of Kreizler’s first investigative probes in this case leads him to declare that a man arrested for the crime did not commit it.

If he’s right, the police now have a problem instead of a solution.

Kreizler also has an assistant, of the ultra-quaint variety. John Moore (Luke Evans) is a newspaper illustrator, which was one of the primary means of conveying visuals in the days before widespread photography. Kreizler begins their collaboration by telling Moore his first drawings were useless because they “romanticized” the boy’s body rather than giving the viewer a visceral feel for what had been done to it.

Moore doesn’t appreciate this critique because, among other things, he’d really rather be spending the time with a lady friend anyhow.

The investigative team is rounded out by Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning, right), a police department secretary who more or less pushes her way into the action. Sara has some noticeable personal issues and she’s acutely aware that most of the men around her resent it when she rises above any traditional female role.

She is persistent, as she must be, and one of the tests for this adaptation of The Alienist is whether it can convey her character as Carr did in the 1994 book.

Women are not alone, in any case, in their oppression by late 19th century society. Immigrants have so little standing in this era that it’s remarkable anyone would even investigate the killing of an immigrant child.

Groups that might be expected to show some empathy or compassion. like the police and the church, consider immigrants disposable. They are grudgingly tolerated when they are useful as workers, even if that work is as abhorrent as child prostitution, and otherwise given little encouragement to improve their lot.

That immigrants and immigrant descendants often become backbones of American progress and success remains the unspoken cloud of irony that hangs over any immigrant oppression story.

It certainly shadows The Alienist, and if the TV version at times doesn’t tell its tale with the depth of the book, that’s partly a tribute to the power of the human mind, and what written words can inspire it to conjure on its own.

That still leaves a lot of tense real estate for The Alienist, and if this series clicks, it probably won’t take another 24 years for someone to tackle Carr’s sequel.

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