Grim and atmospheric to the point of dank, "The Alienist" proves so derivative as to blunt its appeal. Adapted from Caleb Carr's novel, this historical fiction is handsomely produced and smartly cast, but merely delivers the latest twist on a serial-killer yarn -- a particularly nasty one, true, but which at least initially fails to get under your skin.
The story opens in 1896, eight years after Jack the Ripper, and before the word "serial killer" became a common term. Set in New York, the vibe recalls the 1979 movie "Murder by Decree," which hypothesized what would happen if Sherlock Holmes were put on the Ripper case, applying his powers of detection to the crimes.
Carr's Gilded Age version of a master sleuth is Dr. Laszlo Kreisler ("Inglourious Basterds'" Daniel Bruhl), a criminal psychologist who applies nascent scientific techniques -- like profiling and forensics -- to the investigation, which involves the gruesome murder of young male prostitutes.
Kreisler teams with newspaper illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans), Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), a young secretary in the police department, and police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty), one of the actual figures who passes through this take on late-19th-century Manhattan.
The opening chapters work hard to replicate the period while zeroing in on the mores of the time. Demonstrating issues like the casual sexism that Howard faces in her quest to join the police force, "The Alienist" also makes the not-so-subtle point that the darkest corners of human nature existed long before there was 24-hour cable news to chronicle them.
Still, there's nothing particularly profound about that insight, and the characters, as drawn, largely squander the solid casting. As ghastly as the crimes are, these early stages of the case -- and even the ahead-of-its-time detective work -- don't give the actors much to play, including Geraghty as Roosevelt, who by all rights should be an enormously colorful figure.
Once planned as a feature film, this 10-episode limited series certainly has the texture and producer pedigree of a premium drama -- it's the most expensive TNT has produced, and looks like it -- reflecting how the network has veered from less-demanding procedurals toward fare closer in tone to FX and AMC. (Like CNN, TNT is an arm of Time Warner.)
Even so, there's a flatness to the execution that makes "The Alienist" play like another tepid Ripper copycat, leaving this series featuring the famous Rough Rider delivering, at least initially, a pretty uninspired ride.
"The Alienist" premieres Jan. 22 at 9 p.m. on TNT.
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