THE SERIES “The Alienist”
WHEN | WHERE Premieres Monday at 10 p.m. on TNT
WHAT IT’S ABOUT A serial murderer is loose in 1896 New York, killing boy prostitutes, but the police, led by new Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty), couldn’t care less. When another victim is found, it’s left to Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl); his newspaper illustrator friend, John Moore (Luke Evans); and Teddy’s assistant, Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), to launch their own investigation. Kreizler — an alienist, or psychiatrist — has a personal interest in the murders: They may be related to the murder of two children, one of them a boy who dressed as a girl, who were under his care. This 10-part series is based on Caleb Carr’s 1994 bestseller.
MY SAY Get past a best-selling novel, impeccable period details, Dakota Fanning and lots of advance publicity, what then does “The Alienist” have that, say, “Law & Order: SVU” or any other modern-day procedural does not?
You already have your answer — not much of anything — along with a fairly tepid endorsement: “The Alienist” is merely OK.
In fact, doggedly, emphatically, surprisingly OK. It’s a surprise because that famous novel has gone on a 20-year pilgrimage in search of large- (or small-) screen glory. Producer Scott Rudin tried to turn this into a ’90s movie franchise alongside “The Silence of the Lambs.” TNT made certain this adaptation would please the reportedly hard-to-please Carr by getting a first-rate cast and, judging from the first two episodes, a first-rate production design team as well.
But what’s otherwise happened is elementary, my dear Watsons. Serial killer series have exploded since the mid-’90s. You can’t turn on your overburdened TV set without stumbling across a trail of bodies, in decent shows too, like “Mindhunter,” or exotic ones (“Hannibal”) or remorselessly grim ones (“The Fall”). They’re all bloody and graphic. Viscera is almost de rigueur. Meanwhile, there’s a bounty of Sherlock Holmes rip-offs, also bloody, as well as “Sherlock Holmes” (the incomparable updates with Benedict Cumberbatch). The turn-of-the-20th-century period medical drama set in New York? Been done, too, and done well (“The Knick”).
“The Alienist” needed to get past this crowd, needed to get genre fans to care again, to scare them again. It doesn’t, or at least it doesn’t in the first two episodes offered for review. There are eight to go, so that could change, but the early hours are mostly placid, even docile. What must have come to life in the pages of the book struggles to find so much as a spark on the screen — difficult, admittedly, through the pall of smoke and shadows that tend to choke it.
The characters are bland, too. Brühl’s Kreizler is decent but also morose, absent any hint as to why. Evans’ Moore is both seedy and high-minded, a patron of prostitutes with an empathy for the ones getting murdered. Fanning’s Howard is principled, but also malleable. They’re right at home in a show that’s littered with stock characters, like the corrupt Irish cops, the feckless priest and the starchy-but-honorable Teddy Roosevelt.
Fans of the book may be right at home (I haven’t read it), but fans of TV crime may find themselves wanting more — a lot more.
BOTTOM LINE Tepid adaptation that may be faithful but also doggedly dull.