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Jeff Simon: Mayhem cable TV newcomers that shock and mystify

TV's Content Watchdogs are seldom happy. Take the Parents Television Council, for instance. At the moment, they're peeved with TNT's "The Alienist" which premiered this week on the TNT network, full of mutilation, sex and gore of the sort one usually encounters of premium cable, where the audience expects dicey content.

I'm not with them. It seems to me ordinary network TV of the sort that even dogs and cats can watch without too much pause. We all plunged knee deep into post-mortem gore long ago with "CSI" and "Bones," both of which had their successful runs and then met their own mortality. Anyone who has ever for a stray second been passingly grossed out by those shows -- or "NCIS" or a dozen others -- hasn't really been paying attention.

"The Alienist" did give us a slightly new wrinkle in victimology that has become a little more common in this era. The first victim of  a serial killer that we were told about on "The Alienist" -- and then saw -- was an underage male prostitute dressed up "like a girl" whose eyes had been removed along with a foot and a hand, while the rest of the body was ravaged.

Showtime's "The Chi" premiered a couple weeks before that with the murder of a young boy with very long hair -- "like a girl" -- and a fondness for wildly colored sneakers and socks. He was, the show hastened to inform us, basically a good kid, a kid so empathetic that he buys beef jerky at the local bodega to feed a starving neighborhood dog. Unfortunately, after feeding the dog, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and encountered a dead body. He also had what turned out to be a fatal inclination -- to filch the chain around the corpse's neck and then show up with it around his neck a short time later.

Sonja Sohn as Laverne, Jahking Guillory as Coogie and Jason Mitchell as Brandon in "The Chi." (Matt Dinerstein - Showtime)

Not smart, that. And so the kid paid with his life. The angry, vengeful father of the dead kid had no difficulty finding someone with hair, socks and shoes as flamboyant as all that.

Heaven knows, we have, on TV, spent all too many decades watching stories that revolve around young female murder victims (blonde, as often as not.) Some victim turnabout had to come sooner or later.

"The Alienist"was based on the smash bestseller by Caleb Carr that people have tried for years to put on TV. "Alienist" is turn-of-the-last century lingo for psychiatrist, a burgeoning profession throughout the 20th century. So what we're following here is "alienist" Dr. Laszlo Kreizler and his buddy John Moore, who's an illustrator for a newspaper. (Everything from the society pages to front page crime stories, comes off his pad.)

I must confess wanting to like "The Alienist" more than I have so far. Part of the trouble is that TV crime shows since Thomas Harris' novels ("Red Dragon" and "The Silence of the Lambs") changed our pulp fiction appetites radically and have made serial killing ridiculously commonplace. Even if you add all that 1899 atmosphere, it doesn't really affect an unavoidable feeling of "ho-hum."

I like Daniel Bruhl and Luke Evans as the sleuthing principals and Dakota Fanning as the plucky, lone woman on the New York Police force. So too, do you have to like the fact that the New York police commissioner is no less than Theodore Roosevelt, whom Tom Selleck is constantly referring to on "Blue Bloods" as modern New York police commissioner Frank Reagan.

But despite the time period depicted and the condition of the corpse, we're in pretty ordinary territory in "The Alienist."

Oddly, the story of Caleb Carr, the military historian who wrote the smash hit tale, is even more interesting to me than his bestselling fiction. Carr's father Lucien Carr was a hard-driving, abusive UPI reporter who, in his youth, was convicted of murdering a bedeviling admirer and friend named Kammerer who had become obsessed with him and couldn't leave him alone. "Stalker" is what we call such people now.

And, get this now: The New York milieu that future journalist Lucien Carr moved in was that of the Beat Generation before they became famous -- Kerouac, Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. In fact, after Carr killed Kammerer, his obsessed admirer, he went to Burroughs and Kerouac for help before he called the cops.

A fascinating film alluded to it all that was called "Kill Your Darlings." In that one, Daniel Radcliffe played Allen Ginsberg and Dane DeHaan played Carr. Jack Huston played Kerouac and Ben Foster players Burroughs.

An adaptation of that tale -- in the right hands -- would have been far more interesting than "The Alienist" thus far.

I'll stick with it, just as I will Showtime's "The Chi," even though it's a clear-cut Showtime tribute to HBO's "The Wire," which many consider the finest extended narrative ever shown on television.

It's among my many grievous lacks as a critic that I have never been as enthralled by "The Wire," as so many have. I respect their judgment. Unfortunately, I have never shared it.

What's truly fascinating about "The Chi" is its provenance. It comes from Lena Thwaite, the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing. It was for an episode of "Master of None" starring the embattled Aziz Ansari.

She would have seemed an unlikely auteur for such a pitiless bit of inner city realism in the manner of "The Wire." But all will be worth sticking with, I think, on Showtime Sunday nights.

JK Simmons in Counterpart. (Nicole Wilder/STARZ)

So, I think, will the Starz Network's strange new doppelganger fantasy "Counterpart" which comes to us from writer Justin Marks,whose background is almost as unlikely for his current show as Thwaite's.

Marks is a sci-fi writer hitherto known for writing both of the live action "Jungle Books." His next movie will be the new "Top Gun" Maverick."

"Counterpart" is a brazenly complex tale of a world that has been fractured in two, so that J.K. Simmons can play a meek bureaucrat whose wife is dying in one and a dangerous high-functioning spy in another who travels to the world of the first to stop his wife from being murdered.

Get that? Don't worry if you don't. It all seems quite logical enough as you watch. The best reason for doing so is Simmons, that irresistible and ubiquitous character actor who hit it big simultaneous in two diametrically opposite ways--as the demonic Oscar winning drum teacher in "Whiplash", and as the ever-friendly commercial spokesman for Farmers Insurance, whose intentionally awful theme song (bum-ba-dum-bum-bum-bum-bum) almost every American over 12 can hum.

Getting to watch Simmons fly a little bit in the center ring is a minor pleasure of the current TV season but a pleasure nevertheless.



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