Another week, another serial killer show premiere, right? Where Versace: American Crime Story deals with the “whys” of a serial killer like Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss), TNT’s brand new The Alienist deals with the “hows” of the macabre subject. How does a serial killer do what he does, how does his brain work, and, most importantly, how does one catch him (as Mindhunter will tell you, it’s almost always a “he”)? These difficult questions, paired with the sumptuous, nearly obsessive period piece details of Alienist’s Gilded Age New York City setting, prove in a TV landscape filled to the brim with ultra-calculating murderers, the Daniel Brühl and Dakota Fanning-starrer, premiering January 22, is worthy of your obsession.
We enter The Alienist through the eyes of our titular alienist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Brühl), whom we would now deem a criminal psychologist. It’s 1896, and Laszlo finds himself fixated on the gruesome murder of a male, child sex worker who dressed as a girl. The slaying is eerily similar to a disturbing case Laszlo worked on years prior, and he’s convinced the two are connected. Considering the fact this is a twisty murder drama, there is a 100% chance Laszlo is correct.
In the effort to uncover the mysteries of New York’s latest serial killer — who placed the mutilated body of his young victim on the top of a bridge, just waiting to be found — Laszlo enlists two collaborators: charismatic New York Times illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans) and New York Police Department secretary Sara Howard (Fanning), the fictional first-ever woman NYPD employee.
Since everything from the aforementioned Mindhunter to CW monster-of-the-week mystery series Supernatural has given viewers the old “likeable handsome guy and his bookish, less cool, but equally handsome, partner solve crimes” premise, Fanning’s Sara gives The Alienist the extra spark it needs to truly pop.
Sara reminds us female rage is nothing new and was burning bright back in the 1890s, when women weren’t allowed to vote, but definitely were forced to wear body-marking corsets on the daily. We first meet Sara towards the middle of premiere “The Boy On The Bridge” when Laszlo and John want to make extreme demands of their school friend and NYC’s newest police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) — maybe you’ve heard of him?
A man who looks like John Moore is used to sweet talking his way into any room, but Sara doesn’t fall for the newspaper man’s charms, especially since the pair have history. Watching Sara, who's Teddy's assistant, stonewall the impossibly laudable jawline of Luke Evans while simultaneously reminding the illustrator to put some respect on her history-making name tells you everything you need to know about Sara. But, thankfully, Alienist gives us a few more telling scenes with the young, affluent woman before the series premiere is up.
The first of those important moments offers viewers insight into Sara’s bachelorette home life, where she smokes with abandon solo and criticizes society’s ingrained misogyny. At one point, she says, “Then, to hell with them,” and I considered learning how to cross-stitch just so I could embroider that on a pillow for my apartment.
In the second big scene, The Alienist makes a purposeful effort to show the kind of sexual harassment someone like Sara, the literal first woman in the extremely male sphere of police work, was made to face. With no option other than quitting, Sara manages to take the piggish behaviors of her flashing co-workers in stride, and drags their unappealing genitalia along the way. It is more than likely you’ll want to clap for Sara at some point during the Alienist proceedings, as the young woman's grit means even more in the days of #MeToo and the Time's Up campaign.
While good character work will make you actually care about any show, it’s the haunting serial killer mystery at the heart of The Alienist that will stay with you for days, if not weeks. As previously mentioned, the unknown mass murderer terrorizing New York is targeting young boys who dress as little girls, and the criminal has a gory flair for the dramatic. The first glimpse we get of his new victim signals the TNT show isn’t playing with the dark and gritty vibes of countless popular series. No, this one is aims to out-dark its competition with unblinking shots of mutilated, eyeless children like the premiere's eponymous boy on the bridge, Georgio Santorelli.
The drama goes to great lengths to emphasize the innumerable horrors inflicted upon Georgio’s bloody, hand-less body. The crime scene is so terrible, it's impossible not to be taken by the question, “What kind of person would ever do such an awful thing?” The Alienist then pairs these haunting images with unsettling glimpses at its serial killer’s human trophy-filled lair, and claustrophobic explorations of a swelling, dirty New York, which itself feels like a beast that could swallow you up whole at any second.
Although so many intensely dark choices can oftentimes feel hollow in our increasingly violent world, The Alienist doesn’t suffer from this problem. That’s mostly due to the fact these splashes of unimaginable depravity seem to ask the viewer, “Yes, we’re really going here. Are you along for the ride?”
If you happen to have a strong enough stomach for the gory, taught stylings of The Alienist, your answer should definitely be yes.
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