by Jane Leslie
Warning, this show contains mature material including violence and sexual situations; it should only be viewed by mature audiences.
During the latter part of the nineteenth century, those with mental illnesses were considered to be “alienated” from their true selves, and the doctors who studied them were therefore known as Alienists. The Alienist in this excellent TV show is Dr. Lazlo Kreitzer. He teams up with newspaper illustrator John Moore, Sarah Howard (the first female hired by the NYPD-played by Dakota Fanning) who is currently a secretary but longs to become a detective, two coroners Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, and Teddy Roosevelt, then President (Commissioner) of the NYPD. Teddy has made himself unpopular by reforming the NYPD so that the officers were no longer allowed to take bribes, beat up subjects, or collect protection money from store owners. Therefore, he allows the case of murdered male prostitutes to be investigated by the Dr. Kreitzer and his colleagues as many of the corrupt police will not cooperate with him. They can’t understand why anyone would care about the death of a young male prostitute.
Although the hunt for the killer of those young male prostitutes is engrossing (it’s clear that this is the infancy of forensics as we know it today), a large part of the interest in the show is the disconnect between the rich and the poor. Orphans sleep outdoors in the cold and rain while The Society of Prevention of Cruelty Towards Children holds splendid galas with the richest of the rich attending. A book was written during this time called How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, which shows the indifference at the time towards the fate of vulnerable children.
Dr. Kreizler is an unusual man of the time as he seems not to be prejudiced by race, color, or religion and strives to understand the motivation behind the killings, looking for the motive behind the crimes in hopes of tracking down the killer, an early form of profiling. John Moore seems mostly along for the ride while Sarah Howard is enthusiastic and intelligent, putting forth observations and ideas which are readily adopted.
The Isaacson brothers are a quarrelsome pair but bring forth new ideas such as fingerprinting. They are thoroughly engrossed in the mystery.
The one problem I had was the portrayal of Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was a force of nature in real life where, here, he is made out to be a bit insecure.
All in all, this is a fascinating show. The period costumes are superb and the street scenes realistic. It holds my interest on so many levels, that I hope it is renewed after the initial ten episode first season. I highly recommend The Alienist to anyone who enjoys historical mysteries. The combination of the search for the murderer blended with the squalor that was then New York is absolutely fascinating!
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