The Alienist (season 1)

My attempts to catch up with my reviewing leads to this very overdue write up on a surprisingly engrossing TV series. I picked The Alienist on Netflix partly because the title (explained shortly) intrigued me, partly because of the Ripper Street period vibe I was getting, and I thought I’d give an episode a go and see how it went.

So, first note: it’s not episodic. It’s 10 episodes telling a single, hugely involving tale of murder and fledgling sciences and several characters with their own wants and sometimes dark secrets.

That name, then. As the start of each episode tells us, when psychology was a newly emerging field, the early practitioners were known as ‘Alienists’ – because those they treated were said to be ‘alienated’ from their own minds. I was utterly fascinated by this, not so much the word (with obviously very different modern connotations) but that it has fallen so out of use that I’d never even heard of it before! Language is wonderful (unless you are trying to be literally figurative and I will die on that hill ;)) 🙂

Our Alienist in question is Dr Lazlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl, who was also in the movies Rush, Captain America: Civil War, and soon to be seen in Falcon and the Winter Soldier), who is called upon by new police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt (yes, that Teddy Roosevelt!), to help investigate a series of brutal murders in late 19th Century New York. When the case sparks his interest, he’s joined by newspaper illustrator, John Moore (Luke Evans), and police secretary, Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), who is hugely driven by the desire to be recognised for her mind and skills, rather than dismissed for her gender. Soon they also call in the Isaacson brothers, early adopters of the new ‘forensic sciences’, which must have seemed almost like black magic at the time.

The story is very, very dark, concerning a serial killer targeting male prostitutes. The series does not shy away from the reality of the dark and sordid corners of a still fledging city, and the less than ideal lifestyles, politics, and social attitudes. And yet the gloom is all done rather gorgeously – it’s so rich, so well realised, and utterly catches you up. It maybe threw me a little when the band finally ventures out of the city, but it’s all good.

Full kudos, too, to the entire cast. No character is free of some demon, it seems, be that personal tragedy or navigating less than ideal social ‘norms’.

From thinking I’d try an episode to see how it went, I ended up binging this hard. The mystery is involving, taking a few side diversions, and then of course there are the personal stories to uncover. Be prepared to want to watch it in one or two big gulps, racing to find out the answers! And now that I’ve finally written this review, I can move on to an even more overdue start on the second season – happy days!

First broadcast: January 2018
Series: 2
Episodes in this series: 10 @ ~45-50 mins each

My rating: 9/10

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