Feeling alienated from The Alienist

This weekend I finally took the time to binge on the first season of The Alienist. Despite a faithful adaptation and top-notch production values, the drama and I parted with a shrug. Twenty years ago, Carr’s novel of Golden Age New York was one of the catalysts that shifted me from avid reader to hopeful novelist. His attention to detail, obvious love for history and gift for storytelling made me want to turn the stories and histories I grew up with into something worth reading. He inspired me.

When I first heard that The Alienist was (finally) being adapted into a mini series, I was elated. Period television is entering yet another golden age. Series like Poldark, Outlander, Victoria, Peaky Blinders and so many more are mining the history of the famous and infamous to create compelling drama and glorious visuals. The Alienist, I knew, would finally be given its due.

So, why then the shrug? Perhaps it was the cast. In all honesty, I wasn’t thrilled with the casting of Dakota Fanning. She is a lovely young actress, but I couldn’t image her with the spark or steel needed to properly portray firebrand Sara Howard. In retrospect, she was the greatest surprise. She was, simply put, perfectly cast. Daniel Brühl was more a collection of tics and affectations than the complex, driven Dr. Laszlo Kreizler of the novel. Luke Evans did what he could with John Moore, a prop to hang narrative on rather than a fully fleshed out protagonist. Perhaps these were the source of my indifference.

With a bit more reflection, I concluded that it wasn’t the cast, nor the narrative, nor the production. Instead, it was the timing. Had The Alienist come out five or six years ago, it would have been a vanguard experience. It would have been a new standard in dark, historical drama. Sadly for The Alienist, but all the more lucky for the rest of us, the series comes on the heels of several other dramas that have set the bar deliriously high. This newest entry had a lot to live up to.

The grandest predecessor is, without doubt, Penny Dreadful. An engaging premise, movie quality production values and a stellar cast made each one of the show’s (admittedly uneven) seasons an experience like rapture. I’d pay my last dime to watch Eva Green and Billie Piper take turns chewing through scenery and costars. When Patti LuPone is just your back up, you know you’re doing it right. This show did for period horror what Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Wire did for their individual genres.

Another surprise contender is Taboo. Again, I’ll make an admission. I watched Taboo for two reasons. First, Tom Hardy. Second, Tom Hardy. Actually, it was Tom Hardy AND Franka Potente. I wasn’t expecting much, and I almost gave up after the third episode. Thank Tom Hardy’s gloriously naked ass that I stuck with it. The story was tight and engaging, the action was intense and there was more than one surprise to leave me agog. By the end of the first season, I had experienced the rush of a lap on a thrill ride, along with the mild disappointment that the ride had to end so soon.

All of this leaves me mildly interested in the possibility of enjoying The Angel of Darkness. I do hope that the production rises to meet the challenge of the cluttered field into which the second season will bow. What Caleb Carr started on an empty stage, Fanning, Evans and the rest will need to finish before a crowded curtain call.