The Alienist 2018–2020

I was asked to write three hundred words on a scripted TV show. This is what I wrote.

The Alienist is a thriller set in New York at the close of the nineteenth century. A time when sexism, racism, and corruption are endemic. Where poverty chafes against wealth, and someone is preying on the boys that work the streets and brothels of midtown.

The Alienist

When the mutilated corpse of a boy is found on the scaffolds of the Williamsburg Bridge, psychologist Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) enlists the help of friend and illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans) to make drawings of the murder. Convinced it’s linked to the murder of a former patient, Kreizler uses his connection with the newly appointed police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty), to involve himself in the investigation, where he is joined by the first woman to work for the NYPD, Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning).

Using Kreizler’s psychological insights, and the latest pathology techniques, employed by detectives Lucius and Marcus Isaacson (Matthew Shear and Douglas Smith), the group slowly builds a profile of the killer, and set out to stop him. 

The production does a good job of recreating the squalor of the time, but does nothing to contextualise that poverty. It’s hinted at. Marcus meets single-mother Ester (Daisy Bevan) handing out leaflets for a socialist rally. But their brief affair is dealt with on a personal level, missing the chance to explore the upheavals that are intrinsic to the social changes they’re part of.

The main characters are complicated, with traumatic histories, that unfortunately rub too gently against their environment. Howard is perhaps the best example. It’s as if she’s going through the motions of being independent, a trailblazer, without the sternness of a woman battling the expectations of her class and sex.

Overall it’s a familiar set-up, in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes, and while it gently challenges the morays of the time, they’re merely the backdrop to the mystery, rather than an integral part of the story.

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