Master of the macabre: Why ‘The Alienist’ deserves a second season
If the story of Jack the Ripper gets that heart rate jacked and psychological thrillers are your beat, you were no doubt living for TNT’s The Alienist when it dropped earlier this year. Adapted by Hossein Amini (Drive) from Caleb Carr’s novel of the same name, the ten-episode period drama with lush production values and a pitch-black plot tells the story of Daniel Brühl’s Laszlo Kreizler – a criminal psychologist who’s tasked with investigating a series of haunting, gruesome murders of boy prostitutes in New York City. Joined by an ambitious police secretary who aspires to be a detective (Dakota Fanning) and a newspaper illustrator played by Luke Evans (Beauty and the Beast), the gang uses emerging disciplines of psychology and early forensic investigation techniques to seek out the ritualistic killer and put a stop to his crimes.
The show where butchered bodies are ten a penny echoes traits from such gritty noir crime dramas as Hannibal, True Detective, and Mindhunter but with a Victorian twist, set during the period in history when old Jacky boy truly was stalking the streets of London. But what makes the show all the more gripping is its base in reality, blending fact with fiction by including historical figures such as Theodore Roosevelt (played by Brian Geraghty), who held the post of police commissioner from 1895 to 1897. The title refers to the 19th century term used to describe those who worked in psychology, as the mentally ill at the time were considered to be “alienated” from their very own nature.
As the plot progresses and we’re shown a series of late nights, stakeouts, and sinister incidents (spoiler alert!), the trio finally find their culprit who had come to be known as Japheth Dury a.k.a. John Beecham (Bill Heck). The season finale edges its viewers towards a satisfying conclusion, only to then snatch it back when a rogue police officer shoots and kills the culprit. “It’s a frustrating outcome for all involved,” noted IndieWire, “but most especially (for) Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, whose work profiling the killer feels incomplete.”
Themes of childhood trauma, the effect it has on the human mind, and the importance of psychology in criminal cases are explored, particularly through Kreizler’s investigation into Beecham’s life as he uncovers stories of harrowing sexual and emotional abuse in his childhood. As Kreizler mused once the case was closed, “We set out to find a monster, but all we found was a child.” Speaking to IndieWire, executive producer Rosalie Swedlin (Clockers) described how these themes are explored via the murder victims but also the main characters and their journeys throughout S1, including Kreizler who is revealed to have suffered from abuse as a child.
“We felt after that scene between Kreizler and Sara, where he finally tells the truth about what happened to him as a boy, that a culmination of that cathartic moment is the visit to his father and to make peace with the anger, frustration, and secret that has held him back,” explained Swedlin. “That scene we hope leads to him being a generally more emotional and connected person.” In that same scene, Sara reveals her father’s struggle with depression and a suicide attempt. Meanwhile, Moore is alienated from his family, using booze and prostitutes to mask his own inner turmoil.
In addition to the central characters, we also see the strained relationships between parents and children, particularly in the case of the boys who are sold into prostitution or on the streets to earn money. As Swedlin pointed out, the plot unfolds to portray there are victims of abuse in every social ranking. “I think it’s an underlying theme that is played out in many different ways.” With this theme, The Alienist covers ground that makes it feel depressingly applicable to the modern world, dealing with immigration, an elite that strives to keep the status quo, and the ill treatment of the weak in society. In a recent interview, Fanning reflected on the show’s relevance. “Watching the series you realize, ‘whoa, maybe certain things haven’t changed as much as I thought.”
Season one of The Alienist garnered mixed reviews. The Hollywood Reporter described the adaptation as being “full of solid performances and gorgeous, creepy visuals,” adding, “It’s evocative, handsome and just a little disturbing, without the pressure to blow anybody away emotionally.” Elsewhere, Empire compared it to a Mindhunter prequel. “And while it doesn’t hit that series’ heights, it’s a fascinating and richly detailed drama deserving of its star power.” Of course, the real power lies in the hands of the fans, who were enticed and delighted at the macabre period thriller when it dropped in January. According to Canvs – the emotion measurement company – The Alienist was one of the top five most reacted-to programs in the drama-crime genre on cable TV at that time, enjoying the highest reaction rate of any of TNT’s shows within the genre from the previous year. The three key emotions viewers expressed on social media for the show were love, excitement, and enjoyment.
With such a favorable reaction from audiences and the fact its central characters are in tact, it would make sense for the network to bring back the show for a second round. There’s plenty more ground for the team to cover and a plethora of sinister crime cases from the era for the writers to draw upon. So TNT, we’re calling on you – bring back The Alienist for a second season to breathe new life into the show about death and shed light on a story that is dark to its very core.