Caleb Carr’s 1994 novel “The Alienist” is one of the most haunting, extraordinarily dense serial killer dramas ever written. Film rights to this hugely popular bestseller were quickly purchased, but could such a shocking story ever make it to the screen? “The Alienist,” after all, is a story the hunt for a killer of teenage boy prostitutes who ply their trade dressed in girls. Now, more than two decades later, Carr’s story has been adapted — for the small screen. TNT’s ambitious 10-part series is a smart, fascinating, but often upsetting winter watch.
Title: “The Alienist”
Year it began: 2018
Where it can be seen: TNT
Typical episode length: 60 minutes
Number of episodes: 10
Who’s in it: Daniel Brühl, Luke Evans, Dakota Fanning, and Brian Geraghty
Brief plot description: In 1896 New York, an illustrator, a criminal psychologist (or “alienist”), and a police secretary hunt for a serial killer responsible for the gruesome murders of boy prostitutes.
Why it’s worth watching: Television is the ideal medium for an epic period piece like “The Alienist.” With the luxury of 10 separate episodes, screenwriter Hossein Amini and series creator Cary Fukunaga (director of “True Detective”’s stunning first season) can allow the story to build at a deliberate pace. This makes the first two episodes of the series fascinating for fans of the novel. Much time is spent establishing the time period and location, and that’s wise; setting is so important to Carr’s original novel, and the same is true of this adaptation. It is a world of great dichotomy — the filthy rich and the poverty-stricken, the powerful and the voiceless — and breathtaking cruelty. However, there is also great kindness, and Dr. Laszlo Kreizler is the epitome. The prominent and controversial alienist, passionately-played here by Daniel Brühl (“Inglourious Basterds”), is a fascinating and memorable figure. Indeed, everyone else — even then-police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) — seems rather wan by comparison. But all of the actors, including Luke Evans and Dakota Fanning, make the most of their characters. Their performances and help make “The Alienist” a gripping experience. Make no mistake, though, it’s a disturbing one. The first victim reveal is as shocking onscreen as it was in Carr’s novel. If you can handle the graphic violence and the somber subject matter, this TNT series is a must-watch.