Shelf to Screen

The Alienist Episode One: The Boy on the Bridge

TNT’s limited series The Alienist, based on the book of the same name by Caleb Carr, follows three main characters: Dr. Lazlo Kreizler, our titular alienist, who seeks to understand the minds of those afflicted with mental illness; John Moore, an illustrator for the New York Times, who assists Kreizler by lending his eyes and his pen to the investigation; and Sarah Howard, longtime acquaintance of Moore and the first woman to be employed in any capacity with the New York Police Department.  The show takes viewers on a tour of 1896 New York’s seamy underside of boy prostitution and police corruption as Kreizler and his allies race to catch a serial killer.  The first episode introduces our characters and showcases the first gruesome murder.

John Moore, an apparent patron of brothels, is roused from an amorous encounter by the arrival of Stevie Taggert, employee of Dr. Kreizler, who drives him in a carriage to the construction site of the Williamsburg Bridge.  Talking his way past the police by claiming to have been sent for by Theodore Roosevelt (yes, that Teddy Roosevelt), he finds that he is to sketch a horrific murder scene.  A young boy clad in a girl’s dress has had his throat slit, his eyes gouged out, and his right hand cut off, among numerous other injuries.  His sketches don’t please Kreizler, though, as the doctor finds them too artistic and asks Moore for every detail he can describe.  The reason for Kreizler’s interest?  It turns out a former patient of his, also a cross-dressing boy, was killed in a very similar way three years earlier.  Unable to examine the recent body, he exhumes the earlier victim.  His longtime friendship with Roosevelt gets him the loan of two detectives who use “modern methods” to solve crimes.  Moore’s friendship with Sarah Howard, secretary to Roosevelt, gets him a peek at the autopsy file (although this proves useless).  Kreizler vows to do whatever he can, even dive into the murderer’s thoughts and become like him, to stop any further killings from happening.

Having read the book for the first time not too long ago, the story is pretty fresh in my memory.  A couple of changes jumped out at me right away, with the biggest one being that Moore is an illustrator for the New York Times in the series, as he’s a reporter in the book.  I think that this might give the character in the TNT series less of an active role to play than he did in the book.  The literary Moore was used to digging for information and questioning people to get what he wanted.  I hope that shifting his expertise to drawing won’t relegate him too much to the background, or perhaps worse, cast him as the hanger-on who merely follows the others and has little agency.

Sarah seems more “in-your-face” than her book counterpart, although neither version allows men to run roughshod over them.  This might be simply a factor of having to get the character established immediately on the screen, and thus we get scenes of her smoking and saying “To hell with” men, as well as flinging insults at one of the resident corrupt cops.  I hope they show her character’s intelligence as much as her moxie.

Kriezler is, for me, a breath of fresh air in the “turn of the century detective” genre.  Unlike the many portrayals of Sherlock Holmes, Kreizler’s is a contained genius.  He’s calm, collected, and obviously compassionate towards those he tries to help.  It makes his wild chase after someone who may be the killer, careening between horse-drawn carriages and into an abandoned warehouse, all the more stark by contrast.

I almost want to say that New York itself is a character.  There are wonderful CGI renditions of the New York skyline, the crowded buildings, the squalor and the beauty side by side.  It’s the soul of those streets that informs much of what we see here–if the show follows the book, viewers will see firsthand the living conditions of those less fortunate, as well as what it drives people to do.

My one complaint about this first episode is that it was a little hard to follow.  There’s a lot that needed to be set up in a single hour–the main characters, the setting, the corruption of the local police, the prevalence of prostitution, the attitudes towards those considered to be of a lower class–and because of this, I felt that some information was flying by so quickly that it was tough to take in.  I watched this show with Scott, who hasn’t read the book, and there were a few times that he was asking me for clarification of what was happening.  His attention wasn’t wandering, but he was having a little trouble connecting all the dots in so rapid a fashion, and if I hadn’t read the book, I would have as well.  My synopsis touches on the most important of plot details, because I can’t really document the significance of every glance, every slow motion passage of a shady character, every bit of background that paints the setting.

I’m interested enough to keep watching, so we’ll see what happens next week when we, presumably, see the next victim turn up.

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