The Alienist is set in the New York of 1896 – a Victorian, very Jack-the-Ripper sort of place. There has been a spate of child murders. The police are unable to make any progress in tracking down the killer… and some may actually be protecting him, as the suspicion is that he is the son of a powerful family. In desperation, the police commissioner (who is the historical character of Theodore Roosevelt) tasks his psychiatrist/alienist friend (Laszlo Kreizler) with assembling a team to find the killer.
Psychiatry is still in its early stages, as are the sciences of police forensics and profiling. Kreizler has to fight misconceptions, his own preconceptions and a corrupt society. All the while, the clock is ticking… and children are dying. He is frustrated and panicked by his inability to make immediate progress and lashes out at his companions, who are fighting their own demons. Indeed, it is the telling character interactions and growing self-awareness of his team (the feminist, the indolent dandy and the Jewish anatomists) which really make this compelling viewing (along with brilliant acting by the likes of Luke Evans, Daniel Bruhl, Dakota Fanning, and others). The series refuses to indulge in excessive exposition – instead, we pick up clues about the protagonists’ past lives and associations by how they react to their various situations. Each of them has a hang-up, each of them has their own moral code, each of them has skeletons in the closet. The audience is effectively one of the team in having to read the clues and make sense of the narrative. It’s utterly immersive.
And we are immersed in some very psychologically-dark deeds that would only make sense to a dreaming or otherwise altered mind – a mindscape, if you will. It’s the definition of the gothic. The show is gory, in a surrealist way. It is full of disjuncture, false starts, misgivings, bizarre clues and circularity. But it’s thrilling, exciting and daring.
If you can imagine a mix of Mindhunter and Penny Dreadful, then you know what’s in store. If you can imagine a mix of historical fact and fiction, of romance and horror, of depravity and tenderness, of revulsion and compulsion, and if that intrigues and inspires you, then you will enjoy this show immensely.
It’s right up my murky, dangerous alley, this series. I score it 9 out of 10.