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‘The Alienist’ gets down and dirty in old timey New York

Dakota Fanning, from left, Luke Evans and Daniel Bruhl star in “The Alienist,” based on the best-selling Caleb Carr novel.
(Kata Vermes / Turner Entertainment Networks)
Television Critic

Part “Gangs of New York,” part “The Knick” and part “Mindhunter,” TNT’s “The Alienist” pairs gruesome, serial killer carnage with horse-and-carriage charm for this psychological thriller set in 19th century Manhattan.

The 10-episode limited series, which premieres Monday, is as much about a murder investigation as it is about the roots of our present day ideas on gender, mental illness and socio-economics.

Adapted from Caleb Carr’s best-selling 1994 novel, “The Alienist” takes viewers through the filthy tenements and opulent parlors of 1896 New York, exploring the baby stages of forensic science, modern psychology and feminism along the way.

Fans of the book who’ve waited decades for this story to come to life onscreen — big or small — will no doubt find this skillfully produced rendition full of promise: What did they get right, or wrong, or take liberties with? And with Cary Fukunaga, Jakob Verbruggen and Hossein Amini among the top credits, the production arrives with built-in credibility.

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Those not familiar with the book, however, may have a harder time sinking into a story where the character development and acting (at least in early episodes) is upstaged by the phenomenal depiction of a city on the brink of modernization. In short, “The Alienist” is good versus stunning.

In the first two episodes available for review, we meet “alienist” Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl), who studies atypical human behavior and the mind. He’s referred to as an “alienist,” because, as it’s explained in the show: “In the 19th century, persons suffering from mental illness were thought to be alienated from their own true natures. Experts who studied them were therefore known as alienists.”

Kreizler is methodical, detached and full of himself. He’s shown as striking fear and respect in those around him as he defies conventional wisdom about what constitutes “normal” behavior, and looks beyond the status quo for answers. But despite all the intense close-ups and heavy music accompanying his character, he’s not a strong or particularly believable presence right out of the gate.

His acquaintance, the sensitive illustrator and journalist John Moore (Luke Evans), is meant to be everything Kreizler is not: impulsive, driven by emotion and easy to read. Their relationship proves useful when the doctor wants to study the motives behind the murder of a child prostitute, yet lacks the access that Moore has as a journalist. There is some chemistry between the two, but again, it’s the beauty and grime around them that proves the more interesting juxtaposition.

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Moore recruits Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), an old family friend with whom he appears to be in love. But the pragmatic and driven Howard could give a fig about courting, which makes her an anomaly in a society where marriage is the only prospect for upper-crust women such as herself.

She’s determined to be taken seriously at the all-male precinct, which in the patriarchal 19th century, is no easy task. She’s a curiosity and/or prey among the all-male staff, some of whom treat her like glass, others who debase her on an hourly basis.

Think of it as Harvey Weinstein work environs, sans electricity and a century’s-worth of progressive window dressing.

Howard’s narrative and the stories of poor immigrants, ostracized gay men and others in “The Alienist” underpin issues we grapple with today, including the direct relationship between class and the quality of healthcare one receives. It’s an inequity that plays out in squalid downtown taverns and the private dining room at Delmonico’s.

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The bumpy carriage ride between these locales and social strata is filled with fog, bonfires, whiskey flasks and filth. It’s a wonder anyone lived past the age of 10 here. And in many cases, they don’t, but not because of tuberculosis — which is where the investigation begins.

The hunt to solve and stop the murder of young male prostitutes is suspenseful and filled with burgeoning forensic science, such as studying “finger marks.” (No two are alike!)

But the crime-solving here is a gory and graphic affair, where carnage, cruelty and untimely death demand their close-up every few minutes: dismembered children, exhumations, weeping late-stage pox, medical procedures done with tools right out of a Marilyn Manson video.

And there’s the queasy male brothel scene, where the dangerous exploitation of boys is a sordid affair. It’s shown in markedly different light than earlier scenes in another whorehouse, where the transaction between a presumably teenage girl and older man is stylized and sexy

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“The Alienist” is a gripping production that’s beautiful, disturbing and maybe even promising if its earnest characters can keep up with the wicked city around them.

lorraine.ali@latimes.com

@lorraineali


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