“I must follow this wherever it goes, even if it leads me to the darkest pit of hell.”
We’re used to police procedural TV shows that include forensic science (including fingerprints and autopsies) and psychological profiling. But there was a time when such things were not commonplace in solving crimes. That is the world of The Alienist, based on the Caleb Carr novel, (Carr also wrote the first two episodes of the series which I was able to preview.)
The series is set New York City in 1896. A boy prostitute has been found murdered. Hearing of the circumstances, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) sends John Moore (Luke Evans) an illustrator for the Times, to capture the scene. Kreizler is certain that this is the work of a serial killer and that he can use his skills as an Alienist (what we would call a psychologist today) to find the killer. The police are indifferent, at best. Most are completely disdainful.
New police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) wants to reform the corrupt NYPD. He encourages Kreizler to conduct a parallel enquiry outside of the police department. Kreizler is joined by Moore; Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), a secretary in the police department; and Marcus and Lucius Isaacson (Douglas Smith, Matthew Shear), two detectives with a scientific outlook. They set out to follow the evidence that their innovative theories provide.
As the subject matter would suggest, there is a great deal of darkness. It is not limited to killings, but also is reflected in the much harsher world that existed at the time. The police are brutal and corrupt. Brothels were commonplace (and Moore regularly frequents on). Antisemitism is the norm. I think what I appreciated most in the first two episodes was the ability to create the time and place so well. (The series filmed in Budapest to provide a semblance of 19th century New York.)
The term alienist reflects the view that those with mental illness were “alienated’ from their true nature. But it is also the case that the characters in this story are alienated from society in various ways. The principals in the series are each in their own way an outsider. Moore, a journalist, is disdained by police. Kreizler is a practitioner of a strange new discipline. Howard, as a woman, is deemed unimportant and powerless. The Isaacsons are Jewish and so not trusted by others in the police. Even Roosevelt with his power is an outsider within the police department, seen more as a threat to the status quo than really part of the department. Because they are not part of the police culture, they will face additional obstacles, but also be able to bring different perspectives to the task.
The first two episodes are essentially table setting. We meet the characters, see the crime, and the group is formed to set out on the task. The mystery solving is only just beginning.
Having seen only two episodes I am left to guess where the series will lead. But I expect that the theme of alienation will continue to be advanced, as will the idea of the darkness that fills the world. There will likely be many contrasts, including rich and poor, and graft and honesty. I suspect the darkness will not be limited to whoever is going around killing boy prostitutes, but also include the darkness within the so-called proper people of society. Those that look the other way. Those who think what happens to the underclasses is unimportant. I suspect that the “darkest pits of hell” to which Kreizler and the others will encounter will not be limited to the criminal world.
Photos courtesy of TNT