Monday, January 22, 2018

Caleb Carr's long awaited transition of THE ALIENIST makes its TV debut on TNT tonight

From the time of its 1994 publication, Caleb Carr's notorious novel The Alienist was said to be on track for a major motion picture. And why not, as it would seem to have just about everything going for it? Set in New York City during The Gilded Age and peppered with real-life characters (Teddy Roosevelt), as well as the usual fictional ones, with a tale of a serial killer who preys in particularly vicious fashion on child prostitutes (both boys and girls), it had just about every "hook" in the book -- from transgressive sex and pedophilia to uber-violence, guts and gore, all wrapped into a lovingly detailed "period piece."

Finally and nearly a quarter-century later, THE ALIENIST arrives -- if not on the "big" screen, at least on your TV screen -- in a ten-part series that, from the first two episodes we critics were sent for review, captures the above "hooks" in all their ugly, tawdry glory. In fact, though the series is set in that "gilded age," we spend so much time in the 1890s slums, brothels and filthy streets of New York City that you come away from those initial episodes remembering mostly the grime and dirt, rather than any opulence you might have viewed.

The "alienist" of the title refers to the term used back then to describe what we would now called a psychiatrist. Our alienist is one, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (played with his usual skill and charisma by German actor Daniel Brühl, shown above, center). Surrounding him are two other major characters, Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning, below) a pretty, young, up-and-coming suffragette from a very good family who works in the office of Mr. Roosevelt, and talented artist John Moore (Luke Evans, above left) who is able to capture the desecrated corpses of the victims with unusual skill and realism. Both these characters will assist the good doctor in his off-the-record investigation.

These characters, as written and performed, are perfectly acceptable but not too much more than that. Instead -- at least in those initial episodes --  it is some of the subsidiary characters who pack the most punch. In particular, we have the young doctor brothers, Lucius and Marcus Isaacson (played by Matthew Shear and Douglas Smith) -- Jews, and so definitely outsiders in this time and place-- who bring some welcome humor, energy and charm to the proceedings.

The Alienist is dark and ugly indeed, so you'll need to gird up your loins and grit your teeth while viewing this one (unless, of course, dark and ugly is already your cup of tea). But over the entire enterprise hangs a kind of "manufactured" quality. I recall feeling this, too, while reading the novel, and so stopped midway and never finished it.

The television version of the novel does have the added impact of coming now, when so many of the problems from that Gilded Age -- the enormous "wealth gap" to the ever-popular "we-hate-immigrants" movement -- are timely all over again. I would certainly watch at least a few more episodes of the television series, as it is visually interesting and well-acted enough to pass muster. But finish it? I don't know. We'll have to see....

From TNT, The Alienist begins tonight at 9pm EST. Good luck! (That's Brian Geraghty, above, as the series' version of Teddy Roosevelt.)

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