You’re About To Be Real Obsessed With Netflix’s New Serial Killer Show ‘The Alienist’
It's not for the faint of heart.
You’re probably going to be obsessed with The Alienist by the time you’ve binged all ten episodes on Netflix, but that’s okay. Hollywood has been obsessed with it too — for a long time, in fact.
When Caleb Carr published his best-selling crime novel The Alienist back in 1994, producers quickly came calling. Paramount snapped up the movie rights before the book even hit shelves and they spent millions trying to make Silence Of The Lambs with corsets happen, but it was not to be. And so The Alienist went away… for a while.
Then in 2015 we heard rumblings that Cary Fukanaga, the guy who brought us True Detective (the good season), had jumped aboard as director. US TV network TNT were funnelling a reported USD$50 million into the production of a television adaptation of the book — that’s around $5 million an episode, for those playing at home.
With Carr himself strapping in as a producer and an all-star cast of Daniel Brühl, Luke Evans and Dakota Fanning all signing up, The Alienist looked poised to be the next big scare-the-crap-out-of-you series.
The show hits Netflix Australia today and sure enough, it’s excellent TV — just not for the faint of heart.
In the 19th century, people who were mentally ill were considered to be alienated from society and their true nature. Those who studied them, naturally, were called alienists (apologies to anyone who thought this show might have extraterrestrials in it).
Like Mindhunter before it, The Alienist leans hard into the discussion and dissection of psychology, with titular alienist Doctor Laszlo Kreizler obsessed with the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what’. Criminal profiling is an accepted part of lawmaking in present day, but at the time it was considered pseudo-science: much like fingerprinting. “Those seen dancing were thought insane by those who could not hear the music,” says Dr Kreizler at one point, having bumped up against closed minds. “We just need to find the music.”
Set ahead of the turn of the century twentieth century in New York, the opening credits — which show a deconstruction of modern day NYC to how it was back then — are a clever hint at what is to come. The show is all about deconstruction: sanding back our superficial veneers and diving in to what really makes people tick, for better or worse. As an immigrant from a fractured home, it’s immediately obvious why Kreizler becomes obsessed with the victims of a horrific killing spree happening throughout New York.
And the city itself is very much a character, with that $50 million budget lovingly injected into every scene: from handcrafted costumes to immaculate sets of both the exterior and interior variety. Like Penny Dreadful and Taboo, The Alienist’s period setting is merely a stage for an incredibly dark, grisly and downright pee-your-pants scary tale.
With everything from a Silence Of The Lambs-esque basement scene to — gulp — a jar of eyeballs, it’s a hard pass if you’re the queasy type. Yet despite the gore, there’s also a deep dive into the nature of crime and how the cycle of violence can be endlessly destructive, with the ramifications reaching outwards like a seemingly endless shockwave.
A great crime tale is only as good as its characters: think Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey’s chemistry in True Detective, Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, a scene-stealing turn from Cameron Britton as Ed Kemper in Mindhunter or Marc Ruffalo’s animal cracker-eating detective in David Fincher’s Zodiac.
The Alienist’s biggest flex is the characters and the cast who bring them to life. Daniel Brühl — perhaps best known as Zemo from Captain America: Civil War — plays Doctor Laszlo Kreizler, a “crippled” alienist who’s fascinated by people despite not being very good with them. A brilliant mind with social issues is a played out trope (House, Monk, The Mentalist, Harrow), but The Alienist isn’t about, well, the alienist. Despite giving his usual great performance, Brühl’s Kreizler is the least interesting character.
“But the show really belongs to the steely-eyed, chain-smoking Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), who doesn’t blink when a police officer whips out his dick”
There’s Luke Evans’s philandering high-society illustrator John Moore and the doctor’s longtime friend, recruited to sketch the crime scenes before being drawn in by the cause. To say Evans should win an Emmy for his wearage of tailored three-piece period suits is an understatement. The Wire’s one-time cop who tried to legalise drugs, Robert Wisdom, and the criminally underappreciated Q’orianka Kilcher do the heavy lifting as the only people of colour in the cast.
There’s Jewish twins and Detective Sergeants Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, (played by Douglas Smith and Matthew Shear respectively), whose brilliance is widely-known despite the police department’s rampant anti-Semitism. But the show really belongs to the steely-eyed, chain-smoking Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), who doesn’t blink when a police officer whips out his dick, referring to it as a “small, pink mouse” before sashaying from the room.
As the first woman employed by the New York police department, she battles harassment and assault from her colleagues on a daily basis in her quest to one day be a detective. She’s a knowing presence, having seen more than her delicate appearance might suggest, and a woman desperate for a life beyond what society deems fit for her (cue No Doubt’s ‘Just A Girl’).
With some of the best dialogue — including a tongue-in-cheek line about men not having “the dexterity of fingers” to be able to type — it’s Howard, and Fanning’s delivery of her, that truly lasts. All of the characters have — or are — suffering something. As Howard puts it, they can choose to be “haunted” by their past trauma, or motivated by it.
Set around the time of Jack The Ripper, the events of the show may be in a different country but the impact of the horrific, unsolved murders of London sex workers are omnipresent throughout.
With the discovery of the mutilated corpse of a young boy in episode one, the story rapidly kicks into gear as our rag-tag team of misfits begin hunting what is dubbed a “multi-murderer” (the term serial killer didn’t come into wide use until the eighties, after ‘sequence killer’ failed to catch fire).
The victims are considered ‘high risk’ and vulnerable to a predator as advanced as The Alienist’s elusive killer: he’s targeting not only immigrant boys from poor communities in the city, but those who have fled abusive homes and turned to sex work as a way to survive. The term “boy whore” is used liberally and good luck trying not to cringe away from it, along with significant doses of period sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and racism: the 19th century was not a party, y’all.
The crimes themselves are horrific, with the police at first struggling to see a method behind the very obvious madness. Yet once our cast of characters get their Avengers assemble moment, The Alienist finds its stride.
Like any great crime show should, the series gives viewers plenty of process porn: we spend large chunks of time in the physical act of investigation. From chasing up leads and exhuming bodies, to trawling through census data and shaking down sources, the audience gets the opportunity to feel like they earn each twist and turn as the Dr Kreizler’s team slowly navigate their way closer to a monster of human making.
A touch of From Hell with the cynicism of True Detective, The Alienist combines some of the best elements of the genre while adding a few of its own.
The Alienist is now streaming on Netflix.
Maria Lewis is a journalist, screenwriter and author of It Came From The Deep and the Who’s Afraid? novel series, available worldwide.