Something wicked has been happening to the young, crossdressing boy whores of late 1800s New York, and only the crew of Dr Lazlo Kreizler can solve the serial murders that involve gross mutilation, including missing eyeballs and missing vital organs.
Based on Caleb Carr’s novel of the same title, the book had prose that was straightforward yet expansive, letting the atmosphere breathe with facts and little details rather than imposing authorial vision, letting the reader embrace the world of 19th century New York as a world on the brink of full industrialization.
We loved all of it. Wrote Carr: “It is never easier to understand the mind of a bomb-wielding anarchist than when standing amid a crush of those ladies and gentlemen who have the money and temerity to style themselves New York Society.” Sounds like more things change, you know, since nothing’s changed from the time of Netflix’s historical crime thriller?
Told mostly from the point of view of Luke Evans (Dracula Untold), who plays newspaper illustrator John Moore, we go through the first season diving deep into the beginnings of what will eventually be the study of profiling serial murderers.
Set in the underbelly of New York City’s “Gilded Age”, we follow the gang of Laszlo Kreizler (played by the thespian dark horse Daniel Brühl, who’s bland Americna accent takes some getting used to) who holds the key to hunting down a never-before-seen ritualistic killer. But what exactly is an “Alienist”?
It’s an archaic term for a psychiatrist or psychologist. See, before advances in 20th century medicine, mental health was considered more of a hedge science than anything else and practitioners like Kreizler, who innovated the new field of treating mental pathologies, were thought of more as artists and philosophers than real doctors.
While a standout performance from Bruhl as the brilliant but socially awkward and perennially sarcastic Kreziler was to be expected, the interesting arc and surprise acting plum goes to Dakota Fanning as Sara Howard, a plucky and ambitious secretary employed in the NYPD, the first woman in the department and with a mission to become the city's first female police detective. Props also must go to Q'orianka Kilcher (The New World) as the mute and kind Mary, Kreizler's maid whom he rescued as a child.
With totally rich sets and lush production design, the period comes to life even more with personalities like Theodore Roosevelt (still in his early police commissioner job) and industrialist JP Morgan.
While this is a story about grotesque murders, the politics and elite tribalism of NY society makes this not only about the gestation of killer profiling, but also imbues this turn-of-the-century murder mystery with an arc focused on the emergence of one of the world’s most powerful, iconic cities.
It’s a march of progress built on literal blood and guts whose city fathers are intent on burying its darkest secrets.
Before you binge this one, here are a few other excellent profiler series to whet your appetite.
Dexter (2006 to 2013)
Who knew that serial killers would one day be so pervasive that a serial killer dedicated to hunting just serial killers would eventually evolve from that bloody morass? Makes very apt sense, if you think about it.
Michael C. Hall in the role of Dexter was compelling, complex, and enthralling. The guy worked for the Miami Metro Police Department’s blood splatter analysis team, and by night, well, he hunted the hunters.
Hall's performance was so riveting and sympathetic, when people realized they were rooting for a serial killer, it didn’t matter at all. Hey, it also lasted eight damn seasons, with leads Jennifer Carpenter and Hall tying the knot and eventually getting divorced (since they played siblings, that must have made for some very kinky/awkward bed play) during the run.
Criminal Minds (2005 to Present)
Kreizler’s very early alienist pathologies are the direct great granddaddy of the profilers that make up what is now known as the F.B.I's Behavioral Analysis Unit (or BAU).
This show’s been up since the mid-aughts and shows no signs of stopping, so if gruesome crimes are your thing then this series with an ever-evolving cast that’s been on its own steam for 12 years and counting is going to take up a lot of your free time. America’s underbelly here is very dark and very disturbing.
Mindhunter (2017 to Present)
Season 1 of the David Fincher-directed series features the dysfunctional triad of two FBI agents played by Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany, and a psychologist played by Anna Torv, that’s based on the real-life events of the same-titled book by Mark Olshaker and John E. Douglas.
Set in the early 1960s, the streamlining and quantum leaps in the science of psychological profiling that the agents in Criminal Minds use can directly be traced back here, where these three pioneers literally started what would evolve into the BAU. Their main weapon of choice? One on one interviews with convicted serial killers, recording, transcription, and tabulation of those interviews, and then analysis of those findings to try and prevent future murders.
It’s police procedural gone into the face to face, no holds barred territory of details that practically, scientifically drills into the “whys” of the act.
Millennium (1996 to 1999)
We were obsessed with FBI’s criminal psychology consultant Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) and this series for its treatment of Black’s uncanny, nearly telepathic, and almost unnatural ability to get into killer’s minds through extreme empathy.
Combined with the atmospherics, conspiracy theories of secret end times cults, and the signature guiding hand of Chris Carter (who wanted to make a grittier X-Files) with a more supernatural edge, Millennium was, in retrospect, way too dark for it to ever enjoy the same success as the X-Files.
But the symbol of the ouroboros, the declarations of “This is who we are”, and the steely gaze of Frank Black have stayed with hardcore fans and kept up a constant buzz to bring back the show. After all, if Dana and Scully can come back, why not Frank?
Hannibal (2013 to 2015)
The crowning achievement of visually exquisite crime thriller procedurals is still this monster of part-cooking show, part-treatise on synesthesia, and part-manual on the twisted minds of serial killers.
Between psychedelic and painterly treatment of Will Graham’s ability to examine a scene through his own brand of empathic immersion, and Dr. Hannibal Lecter’s propensity to artistically turn human parts into fine cuisine the story of the complex, manipulative, and sordid relationship between Will and Hannibal, solving crimes for the FBI while at the same time hiding as an active serial killer and cannibal, is told like a magnificent and brutal piece of art unfolding and revealed in three excellent seasons.
While Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal is based on Anthony Hopkins’s original, Mads took that character to some deeply unsettling new heights with his heavenly kitchen skills.
Thomas Harris, whose novels this was based on, must be so proud sipping his pina colada in the Bahamas and enjoying his dividends. Damn, we gotta watch it again!
The Alienist is now streaming on Netflix