The Alienist premieres January 22 on TNT
Critics who type faster than they think sometimes insist that a city emphasized in a work of popular narrative art is actually like “a character.” That cliche’s roots, I expect, grow from a general disinterest in setting as a foundational element of fiction, and a tendency to anthropomorphize anything in popular narrative art that exhibits a glint of authorial personality. Woody Allen’s out-of-time Manhattan pulses to pre-war jazz and is curiously empty of people who look like they wouldn’t socialize with the director himself? Then it’s actually another of his characters — like them, it seems incapable of growth or change.
New York is not a character in The Alienist, in that it can’t make a choice or get killed off by the writers. But it is the show’s star, its beating heart, the thing that makes a sometimes listless crime procedural irresistible. Even back in 1994, when Caleb Carr’s historical mystery/thriller hit bookstores, its serial killer plotting had a weary rote-ness to it. What was too familiar almost 25 year ago now, in TNT’s TV adaptation, plays like a straight-up parody of the genre: A brilliant killer on the loose in 1896 New York can’t resist sending clues to the man hunting him down. And that hunter gets told by the new commissioner of the NYPD — Teddy Roosevelt, no less — that there’s not a separate set of “rules” for him.
But the mystery plot has always been secondary to The Alienist’s appeal. Meet Carr’s vintage New York — imagine I’ve pasted here a meme image of a chef kissing her fingers. In prose, the boroughs stalked by The Alienist’s squad of misfit detectives seemed as ripely dark and complex as the London of Bleak House, as grippingly lurid as anything in the penny dreadfuls. Carr was as direct in its depictions of violence and corruption as good tabloid reporting, as breezily comprehensive in its tours of swank restaurants and gutbucket brothels as a rake’s secret guidebook. Or, at least, that’s how The Alienist came to life for a teenager invited into streets so grubby/stabby, the paperback should have come with a tetanus shot. Carr’s New York wasn’t just another character with discoverable human motives: It was a world that commanded the mind long after the reader has run out of pages to turn.
My fascination with Carr’s lost city certainly colors my response to TNT’s new series, both for better and worse. The pilot’s opening sequence builds to a midnight dash over the East River along the spine of “the new bridge” — the Williamsburg. TNT has budget enough to attempt to seriously realize this vision, and the episode’s director (Jakob Verbruggen) emphasizes the vertiginous terror of the ascent. He takes his time with the scene, letting us feel it. But at the same time much wonder is lost: There’s nothing so visionary or persuasive in the computer-assisted re-creation that it can possibly best Carr’s own…