Caleb Carr’s The Alienist was a huge bestseller when it was published in 1994, but Daniel Brühl, who stars in TNT’s 10-episode adaptation (Monday, 9 ET/PT), says its themes may be even more relevant today.
Set in 1890s New York, The Alienist takes viewers on a serial-killer manhunt, while exploring advancements in psychology and forensic science; government corruption; anti-immigrant sentiments and unfair treatment of women.
“This is something incredibly current,” says Brühl (Rush), who plays Dr. Laszlo Kreizler.
Kreizler is the alienist, an archaic term used to describe early practitioners of psychology and tied to the idea that people with mental-health issues were alienated from their "true" selves. (“I thought it was about aliens" at first, says Brühl, who grew up in Germany.)
The Alienist, long talked about as a feature film, represents TNT's biggest-budget production and its effort "to make premium drama series that stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best in the business," says original program chief Sarah Aubrey.
(Upcoming projects include a One Day She'll Darken limited series from Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins and starring Chris Pine and Snowpiercer, to feature Jennifer Connelly and Hamilton's Daveed Diggs.)
Kreizler, a brilliant, independent and progressive thinker viewed skeptically by the establishment, determines that the murder of an underage male prostitute from an immigrant family was the work of a serial killer, a concept new to that era.
Kreizler is joined in his investigation by two unlikely partners: his unfocused, hard-drinking Harvard classmate, John Moore (Luke Evans, The Girl on the Train), a New York Times illustrator who spends much of his spare time in brothels; and Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning, American Pastoral), the first woman to work for the New York Police Department.
Kreizler quickly deduces the serial pattern of the crimes, which may be part of a cover-up, while the killer keeps tabs on his pursuers. .
"We see the presence of the killer in the first episode," Evans says. "We know that he's watching us. He's always leaving us clues, and we're always one step behind."
The Alienist’s story is the manhunt, but much of its depth comes from the relationship between Kreizler (whose theories are greeted skeptically), Moore (seen as a well-off ne'er-do-well) and Howard, who faces sexism and harassment. The three bond as outsiders, says director and executive producer Jakob Verbruggen.
The three loners "need to confront their inner demons. They are alienated, and they need each other to become a better person."
Although all three are financially secure, they immerse themselves in the poor, immigrant culture as part of their investigation.
“They have this life of privilege, but what they all have is great tragedy in their past. Those painful experiences are what each is trying to heal in this investigation,” says Fanning, whose Sara was orphaned at age 12.
Like the novel, the miniseries features historical figures, including then-New York police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt and fabulously wealthy financier J.P. Morgan.
"We stayed very close to the book. But, as with any adaptation, you have to take some liberties," says Verbruggen, who fleshed out the backstory of Moore, the novel's narrator.
Despite its setting in the Gilded Age, the economic and class issues explored still resonate.
“A big part of the show is the inequality between the classes and getting to see the struggles that are happening,” Fanning says. “It’s about everybody finding their place in an unfair society, and certain individuals trying to make the society fair.”
Budapest, with plenty of ornate, turn-of-the-century architecture, substituted for New York. Smoke, cobblestone streets and period fashions gave the actors a feel for earlier times.
Fanning recalls a suffocating corset that leaves marks on Howard's skin — "It just shows the literal restrictions," she says — and long skirts that were in danger of brushing against muddy, unpaved streets.
"The costume designer was like, 'Hold your skirt up! It's going to get dirty,' " she remembers. "But I wanted Sara to be somebody who didn't actually care if her skirt got muddy. Sara may be upper class, but she's not prissy or afraid to be around someone who is different from her."