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‘The Alienist’ Is Here to Cure Your True Crime and Period Drama Addictions

The TNT series—no longer a limited series—doesn’t get much hype, but right now it’s the only show in town that provides ‘Hannibal’-level gratuity, pulpy thrills, and stunning period-era set design

TNT/Ringer illustration

Hannibal’s arrival on Netflix this summer allowed me to finally fix an embarrassing blind spot. All told, the NBC series was as advertised: beautiful and macabre, filled with grandiose monologues and gruesome imagery that pushed the boundaries of what’s acceptable on network TV. None of my description is exactly groundbreaking—Hannibal has a cult following for a reason—but there is a chance I’m the only person on the planet who thought, “Oh I see, so this is kind of like … The Alienist.”

Similar to Hannibal’s bloody presence on NBC, The Alienist was an odd bedfellow for TNT’s programming slate, which includes sun-soaked romps like Claws and, more importantly, lots of NBA games. It’s quite surreal to transition from Charles Barkley trashing Draymond Green and sharing hilarious anecdotes about how he got a bracelet from a stranger in a steam room to a trailer for a brooding crime drama set in New York’s Gilded Age in which Daniel Brühl intones in a gravelly voice, “I’m an alienist.” That TNT seemed to average at least 20 Alienist spots per NBA game only added to the intrigue: By the time The Alienist aired in 2018, I needed to see what all the fuss was about, and also learn what an alienist even is.

Based on Caleb Carr’s novel of the same name, the first season of The Alienist took place in 1896 New York as a spate of violent murders of cross-dressing child sex workers hit the city. With the homophobic police department unwilling to help, it was up to Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Brühl), aspiring detective Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), and New York Times illustrator/budding reporter John Moore (Luke Evans) to find the culprit and prevent more murders.

While each character was integral to unpacking the mystery, it was Kreizler’s methods as an alienist—an antiquated term for a psychologist—that felt most attuned to television’s wave of prestige crime dramas. The way Kreizler tried to develop a psychological profile for the killer made The Alienist not unlike a prequel to Mindhunter, where discussions of why someone would want to murder and mutilate boys were as important as the grisly acts themselves. But the show didn’t hold back on the brutality, either: The fact that the killer achieved sexual gratification by mutilating the corpses is the exact kind of detail that makes you double-check whether this is the same channel where the Bucks are playing the Sixers at 8 p.m. And when it was time for Kreizler, Howard, and Moore to explore society’s seedy underbelly, it was hard not to recall True Detective—hell, The Alienist’s moody opening title sequence might as well be copyright infringement. Perhaps because it was airing on a network not known for prestige television, and with so many crime dramas preceding it, The Alienist was deprived of Mindhunter’s or True Detective’s level of fanfare—anecdotally, I’ve found I’m as alone as Tom Hanks on Alienist Island. But the series did garner a handful of Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Limited Series, and even netted one statuette for its visual effects.

Now, as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has finally begun to affect our TV schedules, there might never be a better moment for The Alienist to position itself as a must-watch prestige crime series—if only because, well, crime enthusiasts don’t have much else in the way of options. David Fincher and Netflix have put Mindhunter on an indefinite hiatus; True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto has decided to brood over at FX; at the moment, hopes for a fourth season of Hannibal are more fantasy than reality. Grab your finest petticoat and join me, because it’s almost Alienist season again.

You see, in what’s starting to become a rite of passage for Emmy-nominated limited series, The Alienist is not staying limited (though, unlike Big Little Lies’s shamelessly inert second season, The Alienist returns on Sunday night with some purpose). Carr wrote a sequel novel, Angel of Darkness, which is where the show picks things up for Season 2. It’s now 1897: Howard has opened up her own female detective agency, Moore is now writing full time for the Times, and Kreizler is still the titular alienist with a penchant for Hannibal Lecter–esque dialogue. (“Such wanton extravagance fills me with melancholia,” he says at one point; in another era he’d be blogging for The New Yorker.) The new case that falls into their laps is equally macabre: Someone in the city is kidnapping infants, a mystery that may be connected to a corrupt maternity ward where high-society men toss their pregnant mistresses. (Late-1800s New York was not a great place to raise kids, it seems.)

Like its predecessor, Angel of Darkness lets real-life historical details and figures bleed into its fictional case. The first season saw pre-presidential Teddy Roosevelt (played by Brian Geraghty) work as a police commissioner and gruff character actor Michael Ironside show up as the actual J.P. Morgan. This season brings attention to the women’s suffrage movement, and William Randolph Hearst and Cornelius Vanderbilt appear as supporting characters. Along with a stunning re-creation of Gilded Age New York, Angel of Darkness remains an immersive experience that’s as great to look at—TNT spared no expense with the amount of horse-drawn carriages and fancy top hats—as it is to think about.

Given the links to women’s suffrage and the questionable ethics of a maternity ward—run by a man, of course—the central mystery is teeming with potent symbolism: a potent commentary on a deeply patriarchal society. Therefore, Angel of Darkness sees Kreizler cede the spotlight a bit to Howard, whose fierce intelligence is constantly undermined by dim-witted men. (Between The Alienist and The Great, it appears the Fanning siblings are competing on the period drama front.) The second season also continues the will-they-won’t-they thread between Howard and Moore, a storytelling choice extremely hindered by the fact that Dakota Fanning and Luke Evans, bless their souls, don’t have an ounce of sexual chemistry. At its worst, the relationship between Howard and Moore feels like an academic seminar about the intricacies of love; it doesn’t help that Kreizler occasionally chimes in like a German thesaurus.

It’s that pulpy quality, though, that made The Alienist endearing in the first place. The series is an effective, brooding crime drama when it delves into the nitty-gritty of a case; it can be unexpectedly funny when it tries to spice up its characters’ exterior lives. (Kreizler swoons over a female alienist this season, played by Lara Pulver, who takes him to a fetish club and watches him struggle to explain that he wants to watch but not in that way.) But the balance between grisly investigative work and campier moments isn’t totally out of sync—there aren’t shades of, say, the unforgettable disasterpiece that was True Detective Season 2. And if The Alienist’s cardinal sin is that prestige TV beat the series to the punch—as a gritty historical drama (Boardwalk Empire, Peaky Blinders) and as a deep dive into the psychology of killers (Mindhunter, Hannibal)—then that’s not as much of a crutch when it’s the only game in town.

“You should watch this crime show because it’s the only one we have at the moment” may sound like faint praise, but The Alienist is far more entertaining than its reputation might indicate because, well, it doesn’t have much of a reputation to begin with. As alienated (no pun intended) as Dr. Kreizler in the psychological community, I have stood alone in my fandom, in an old-timey suit and with a monocle, waiting for someone—anyone—to give The Alienist a shot. It’s not too late to join me. There’s plenty of room here; the barkeep is pouring absinthe over sugar cubes, and you can catch the Lakers play the Pelicans after the crime is solved.