The Alienist – Review

Genre: Period drama

Cast: Daniel Bruhl, Luke Evans, Brian Geraghty, Dakota Fanning, Robert Ray Wisdom, Douglas Smith, Matthew Shear, Q’orianka Kilcher, Matt Lintz

The Alienist is the latest forensic psychology detective series from Netflix, adapted from the Caleb Carr’s best-seller (1994). Set in New York City in 1896, it begins with the horrifying discovery of a mutilated body of a young boy in women’s clothing. An underage prostitute in a brothel catering to a wealthy clientele with illicit appetites, the immigrant victim is too poor to be of interest to the police no matter how grotesque the nature of his death.

Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl), an expert in the newfangled study of people “alienated from their natures,” begins to believe this murder is part of a string committed by the same disturbed perpetrator and he forms a team that comes to include New York Times illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans), a rising police commissioner named Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) and wealthy proto-feminist Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning).

Kreizler is not a psychologist or psychiatrist; he is a “alienist,” a precursor of the mental health professionals of today. He is a remarkably non-judgmental man; he tries to understand the motivations of those he treats, and he shuns the kinds of spiritual or moral condemnations that were generally favored at the time.

Kreizler is portrayed as an enigmatic obsessive who might have darker tendencies of his own. The nature of him and the rest of the protagonists, feeling slightly out of place for the time period, allows the show to touch themes of homosexuality, transsexuality, feminism and mental health without having to work through predictable and well-worn ground.

As the show progresses the supporting characters become less and less impressed with Kreizler and the audience is no longer force-fed unsatisfying proof of his excellence. This gives Moore, Howard, and the Isaacsons a chance to grow into their own stories and to finally develop some of the complexity that we were promised.

By the mid-season, the show finally figures out what it wants to be. The growing conspiracy against the investigators is compelling and the final two episodes exciting.

There is a meld between real historical figures – banker J.P. Morgan gets a mention in the theatre as well as Roosevelt – and fictional characters. The makers previously stated that they wanted to stay true to Carr’s original source material and the show’s richness comes from his meticulously-researched work. The writer was a military historian and gives The Alienist an authenticity that it might not otherwise would have had.

It is, fundamentally, a story about vast class divisions in turn-of-the-century Manhattan and it’s in realizing this world that The Alienist finds its greatest success.

> Mar Martínez

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