The late 19th century — the Victorian Era in Britain, the period of the robber barons and the ante-bellum Gilded Age here in the U.S. — was, especially for novelists, an exciting time in the post-Industrial Revolutionary period. Technologies like photography, the steam engine, telegraphy and medical sciences from Pasteur’s microbiology to Freud’s psychoanalysis, were advancing at a rate that wouldn’t be seen again until the 1990s Information Age brought about by the internet. Tribalism, superstition and small-town thinking were giving way to megalopolises with educated men (and finally women!) engaged in a second Enlightenment.
The problems, of course, was that the old ways were stubborn and conflicted with modern thinking. (Imagine living in a time when leaders yelled “fake news!” everytime they were confronted with something they couldn’t understand, and labeled “junk science” any complicated issue posited by people smarter than them. Go ahead, I’ll give you a second.) we have Arthur Conan Doyle to thank for popularizing the scientific method via his avatar Sherlock Holmes, assisted by a doctor, no less, named Watson. The thinking that they represented invented the 20th century.
So it has been a wonder that historian and novelist Caleb Carr’s juicy, literary 1994 novel The Alienist — set in New York during the fin-de-siecle of the 19th century — took so long to make it to the screen. A modern-day Holmes, Carr’s hero is Laszlo Kreizler is an “alienist,” an old-timey name for the budding science of psychology and even fingerprinting. Carr threw in real-life folks like NYC police commission Teddy Roosevelt, financier J.P. Morgan and a lurid tale of a serial killer to create an American historical novel akin to Sherlock tackling the Jack the Ripper case. (The film Murder by Decree and the comic book From Hell put Holmes himself into that case.) That flexibility gave Carr to opportunity to relish the painstaking realities of 1896 New York while winking to a modern reader about the rightness of his hero’s positions — we know his method is more correct than the third-degree beating preferred by the beat cops of the time.
All of which is to say, I have been waiting for the long-delayed adaptation of The Alienist for more than two decades. And now it arrives, courtesy of a TNT miniseries. And… so far, it’s a disappointment.
Daniel Bruhl plays Kreizler, the detached, methodical title character, who employs John Moore (Luke Evans), an illustrator for the New York Times as his Watson, to help prove that the murders of young gay male prostitutes weren’t committed by the man the police targeted but a sociopath with a plan. The police mock his style; but employing the newly-endorsed method of fingerprint analysis, he goes on a quest to unearth a monster in our midst.
And how do we know? Because the teleplay tell us that, openly and repeatedly. There’s little subtlety in the storytelling. At one point in the two episodes made available for critique, Kreizler literally says aloud to his gathered team that he will have to bring himself to the brink of madness in order to find the killer. That’s a point much better shows than said, which contributes to the obviousness of the scripts. There’s a modicum of grimy atmospherics, and the directors don’t shy from explicit discussions of the sexual proclivities of men who frequent call boys dressed as girls, but it feels much more prurient than evocative. Bruhl is capable but so far, little has been required of him; Evans is underwhelming as his aggressive assistant; Dakota Fanning, as the lone woman working for the police, sounds more like a suffragette than an investigator. It’s so interested in hammering home its messages, that it overshares.
Perhaps the show will hit its stride with time. I’ll stick with it. But after nearly a quarter century’s wait for a definitive adaptation, it’s difficult not to feel a little alienated by what made it to screen.
Airs Mondays on TNT starting tonight.
— Arnold Wayne Jones