“In the 19th century, persons suffering from mental illness were thought to be alienated from their own true natures,” explains the introductory title sequence to TNT’s psychological murder mystery series The Alienist. “Experts who studied them were therefore known as alienists.”
The Alienist is set in New York City in 1896 at the tail end of America’s Gilded Age, when the economic expansion, industrial advances and scientific achievements veiled widespread corruption, organized crime and serious social inequality. In a dark corner of this world, an immigrant boy dressed in women’s clothing is found gruesomely murdered. Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl), an alienist specializing in child psychology, and New York Times illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans) are drawn into the case, uncovering evidence and following leads that the corrupt police officials won’t.
— TheAlienistTNT (@TheAlienistTNT) December 14, 2017
Kreizler and Moore enlist the help of Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), secretary to then-police commissioner and future president Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty), to secretly circumvent the police. Sara’s the first woman employed by the department, and many of her cohorts are openly hostile.
“Sara just wants to be able to do her job,” Fanning says. “She wants to be able to help other people and be able to use her skills and her intelligence to be of service. She’s not really thinking about being a pioneer.”
What Sara is thinking about becomes a part of the mystery. As the investigation progresses, more is revealed about her own dark past. “She comes from a family of means, but she’s largely been on her own for most of her life and was orphaned at a young age,” Fanning says.
Sara’s somewhat cold and detached exterior belies her complex emotional core. “A big part of her character is that she doesn’t really let other people see her sweat,” Fanning says. “She can’t show vulnerability because that in this time would have been perceived as weakness. But there are a lot of times when we see her embrace her femininity. It’s important to show female characters who are feminine and strong, because of course you can be both.”
The Alienist will draw comparisons to a 19th-century True Detective (Cary Fukunaga executive produced both series). Based on early episodes, The Alienist looks like a deep dive into a complex world inhabited by characters who confront a disturbed psychopath and their own natures.
The Alienist premieres Jan. 22 at 9pm ET/PT on TNT.