To many fans’ pleasure, TNT’s latest show The Alienist finally premiered after years of production stalls. Based on the 1994 novel of the same name, the show is poised to add another outlet of gore, misplaced moral messaging, and perhaps the blandest depiction of Theodore Roosevelt you’ll ever see. All of this coming from the first of a ten-episode season.
The Alienist is a historic drama following an “alienist,” the late century term for a psychologist, deciphering an unusual case in 1896 New York City. Title alienist Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) becomes involved in the investigation of a deadly attack on a boy prostitute that leaves the boy with his organs torn out and his eyes plucked (which the show delightfully reveals near its opening). After discovering some connection to a past murder, Kreizler works with old friend and newspaper illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans), new police commissioner and future president Teddy Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty), and feminist secretary Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) to solve the case outside a system that seems content with abandoning its weakest citizens.
Right away, the show becomes yet another outlet for class warfare where polite society fails anyone not white, heterosexual, rich, and male. The police responsible for protecting the city disparagingly refer to the young victim as an “it” remarking “what else would you call a degenerate who dresses himself as a girl for the pleasure of grown men?” Women aside from Sara serve as cleaning maids and prostitutes to accent the rigid inequality of this world. Moreover, the story takes a darker turn as it shows that perhaps the authorities don’t want the real killer to be found. This plot is so contrived even sites such as Uproxx call out the first episodes noting “so many others had beaten it to this particular punch.”
Unfortunately, the main characters, even the white male ones, on their own don’t fare much better. Kreizler is ostracized from the upper society because of his “unusual” methods of treating psychology patients down to letting a boy dress like his sister to “follow his nature.” Meanwhile Moore’s first scene in the series includes him soliciting prostitutes with just about the closest nude image you can get without a censor.
Roosevelt, the famous bully pulpit Republican President, struggles to pull out of old bribes given to the police station by the owners of a whorehouse, painting both the station and the president in an awful light. Finally, Sara is the stereotypical woman hungering for respect in a misogynistic office - cue the timely message comments from critics, even though this plot actually makes sense to the time period when few women worked outside the home.
Despite taking place in 1896, it plays out as most liberal shows do nowadays. The show presumes to teach us a moral lesson, but the characters are morally questionable at best and the message is the same as always. Stuffy traditionalists are wrong, and open liberals are right. Much like the progressive society our moral “betters” present us with in the 21st century. As we dive deeper into the story and what else could be wrong in New York City in the 1890s, all does not bode well for the rest of the season.