Taking a Side in “The Alienist”

Every once in a while, you’ll come across a piece of art, whether it be a painting, music, a movie or book, that you respond to in a positive light. You’ll think it’s very good, and even though perhaps you are not able to articulate just exactly what you find enjoyable in it, regardless you’re confident in its quality.

But then you go to Rotten Tomatoes.

Within every field of art there are the critics. Throughout the ages, these critics and these artists have attacked each other, sometimes with words, sometimes with fists, but as much as we might despise both, we must admit we need them. For some artists it’s clear that they have no ability to describe why they make what they make, or what their art means, beyond simply expression. For critics, we need their input to elevate an art and push artists to do something “new”, but they can never creatively inspire like artists can.

At a far enough distance, one can see that both artists and critics perform their own sort of art all to themselves, and that they have less crossover than we think.

Or perhaps, at a close enough level, one can see both artists and critics performing labor. Putting paint on canvas. Putting words on a page. Speaking into a podcast microphone. It’s all just humans doing human things.

When my wife and I watched the first four or five episodes of The Alienist, each episode layers on top of each other very well. It is New York, 1896, and a series of boy prostitute murders sends Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) on an investigation to solve the murder from his own idiosyncratic point of view. He is an “alienist,” believing that trends and patterns in violent behavior can be codified so that further murders can be dealt with before they occur. Alongside him is John Moore (Luke Evans) an upper class socialite and painter, and Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) the first female employee of the New York City Police Department. Together they must stop the murders against the inclinations of a very stratified wealthy elite, a corrupt police department, as well as against the inclinations of their own personalities and desires.

From the start of the episodes, each character has their own strengths and weaknesses. Dr. Kreizler is incredibly smart, but his lack of social intelligence makes him a hindrance to the investigation in the best of times, and a real asshole most of the time. John Moore is a high-functioning alcoholic, unless he is rebuffed, which sends him on binges, and eventually attempting rash actions to solve the case himself, thus bolstering his weakened self esteem. Sara Howard’s tough exterior was useful to get her in the police department, but it makes for confusion among her contemporaries over how best to interact with her in professional and personal settings. As the episodes continue, each character has a catalyst that pushes their personality to the breaking point, and each rash act feels earned based on the layers that came before. They each are at one point or another guilty of “getting personal,” of manipulating each other, in order to prove the points they want to make.

Just based on the characters alone, the show is wonderful to watch, but the surrounding elements are just as fascinating as well. This is TNT’s most expensive show ever made, and we have been astonished at the costumes, the settings, the old America look and the script that tackles the language of the time admirably. The lighting on moody nighttime scenes is superb, the amount of extras thrown in to emulate the crowded urban settings cringe-inducing when you consider that, before automobiles, the streets must have smelled horribly like horse shit. In the day time, the squalor of the poor and the opulence of the rich are made so public that we can be both glad we have better opportunities, yet still lamenting the obvious fact that poverty still exists. It’s a show that reminds you through set and situation that though our technological feats have progressed splendidly, our human behavior is woefully behind.

So when I finally checked Rotten Tomatoes, as I often do when making my way through a show or movie, I was stunned to find that the results were at 66% for critics and 78% for viewers. Granted, this is not terrible, but it was hardly the higher praise I was expecting. We had just finished episode seven, where a twist had occurred that I had not predicted. We were so stunned to be led astray like the rest of them. I will not spoil it, but the show does a bait and switch that, I will admit, was foreshadowed, but I had not taken the time to carefully parse it out. To have that occur in as little as seven episodes, while still establishing the rest of the plot and characters, I thought was really kind of cool. But many of the critics do not seem to agree.

Sophie Gilbert of The Atlantic, a particular critic I admire, wrote “The result is a series that has all of the brooding intensity of Fukunaga’s HBO show, but little of the necessary narrative energy to pull it off.”

And Allison Shoemaker of RogerEbert.com said, “It’s also more than a bit on the nose, which leads to the other, much larger issue that plagues these early episodes. “The Alienist” never met a direct statement it didn’t like. This is a series that, visually speaking, is “Hannibal”-lite, bringing a lush sensibility to its moments of horror and gore.”

In response to these critiques, I must say that I feel as though the show does an excellent job of providing many of the rich details for a procedural detective show. What I found so hideous about True Detective and Hannibal was in the molasses script, which spent too much time philosophizing with truly gobbledigook lines. Most of the show, especially in season three, features ridiculous lines like this:

“I stared at [my victim] and the space opposite me assumed the shape of a man filled with dark and swarming flies. And then I scattered them.”

And here is a quote from True Detective

I think human consciousness, is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law.”

As a watcher of detective television, these bring me no closer to anything. Perhaps they help us elucidate the characters more, but The Alienist gives us that and more through gripping actions and responses. Dr. Kriezler repeatedly questions and interrogates the pasts of John Moore and Sara Howard, to such an extent that Sara feels cornered, and starts to do her own digging. The results give us an in-depth look at the cornerstone in the show. “Let’s just say that the doctor is right,” Sara says, “And that anyone, given the right circumstances, is capable of violence.”

Not to mention that the viewer is given plenty of clues to follow the case, clues that not only shed light on the killer, but on the context of the American historical period of the time. Westward expansion, religious fundamentalism, the last vestiges of the Victorian Era in sexuality, the Gilded Age’s wealth inequality, alcoholism and industrial waste, confinement of the mentally insane (or in the case of women, simply the “unreasonable”). As far as I can tell, the show had to juggle the intersection of various trends and ideas, and it does so much better than Perry Mason‘s attempt for the 1930s, a series much more interested in style over substance. It’s not that The Alienist is Hannibal-lite, but rather the opposite: Hannibal is The Alienist-lite.

I think The Alienist may not be setting new ground for detective shows or procedural crime thrillers, but I think that it is one of the best renditions of the genre I have ever seen. I have a very high respect for those who take creative risks, but I also have a high amount of respect for something that takes the form and attempts to perfect it to as high a quality as possible. Because of that, The Alienist is excellent to watch both as entertainment and as a case study for burgeoning filmmakers.

The second season comes out July 16th, and I cannot wait to see where they take the show next…

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