February 28, 2018

TNT’s ‘The Alienist’ has come just in the ‘Knick’ of time

The series is an engrossing tale served with gore and depravity

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Daniel Bruhl Retna/AdMedia

Daniel Bruhl attends the 24th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards held at The Shrine Auditorium on Jan. 21, 2018.

One of my favorite television series of the recent past was “The Knick,” which ran but two seasons on Cinemax.

Set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York, “The Knick,” which was deftly helmed by Steven Soderbergh, starred Clive Owen (“Closer”) as John Thackery, a brilliant and forward-thinking, but drug-addicted physician at lower-Manhattan’s Knickerbocker Hospital (a.k.a. “The Knick”), which primarily served as the medical last resort for the city’s poor and dispossessed.

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The show, which also featured Eve Hewson (daughter of U2 overlord Bono) as a proto-feminist nurse, was a wonderful, if often tough-to-watch, piece of work. Wonderful, because, among other reasons, it offered a hyper-realistic glimpse into a rather overlooked-by-Hollywood time period, more specifically, a time period when what we know as modern medicine began to take shape (in one episode, the hospital’s staff giddily plays with a first-generation X-Ray machine).

The series was also notable for it’s visual blueprint, which relied solely on lighting sources that would have existed back then: It used only natural light or low-wattage light bulbs.

“The Knick” was sometimes difficult to watch because its (many) depictions of surgery were arguably the most graphically detailed ever seen on a scripted program. And, for the more sensitive among us, the many scenes of sexual depravity were likely off-putting.

Cinemax pulled the plug on “The Knick” in 2017, after just two seasons, which left a huge hole in my TV-viewing life. But then, in early January, TNT lifted me up with its premiere of “The Alienist.”

The show’s central plot—a psychiatrist is obsessed with discovering the identity of a serial killer—has little relation to the stories that comprised “The Knick.” But there are enough similarities to make “The Alienist,” which is based on Caleb Carr’s 1994 best-selling historical novel, seem almost like a spin-off of that series.

Set in New York City at almost the same time (1896 versus 1901 in “The Knick”), “The Alienist,” which airs Mondays at 9 p.m., has everything that made “The Knick” such a grabber, including plenty of blood and guts and even more sexual corruption: The serial killer in question preys upon, in Jack-the-Ripper fashion, young boys dressed as girls who sexually service older males (because, as one character puts it, “Real girls won’t do what they do”).

The two shows also share moody, synth-driven scores and a relentless eye for period detail.

Daniel Bruhl (“Rush”) stars as the title character, Dr. Lazlo Kreizler, a prominent alienist (the contemporaneous term used for psychiatrists; the prevailing wisdom of the era was that the mentally ill were “alienated” from their true personalities). Bruhl is appropriately brooding and haughty in the role, and he commands every scene in which he performs.

He is backed by an equally able supporting cast that includes Luke Evans (various “Fast & Furious” films) as a newspaper artist who is Kreizler’s best friend; Dakota Fanning as—what else?—a proto-feminist (albeit one who works as a secretary for the New York Police Department); Douglas Smith and Matthew Shear as twin, Jewish forensics experts and David Wilmot as a malevolent and corrupt police captain.

The only false note is struck by Brian Geraghty, who seems a bit too callow and physically unimposing to portray then-police commissioner and future president, Theodore Roosevelt.

“The Alienist,” which can be viewed in its entirety at www.TNT.com, is the kind of adult TV entertainment of which we can never get enough. While it may not be quite on the “Breaking Bad”/”The Sopranos” level, it comes pretty close, and it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.

At the very least, it is the TV equivalent of methadone for those of us suffering from “The Knick” withdrawal.

Chuck Darrow is a veteran entertainment columnist and critic. Listen to “That’s Show Biz with Chuck Darrow” 3 p.m. Tuesdays on WWDB-AM (860), WWDBAM.com, iTunes, IHeartRadio, and TuneInRadio.

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