I Have Problems With “The Alienist” 3

Before I get going on this bitchfest, let me just say that translating a book into a TV show or movie is not an easy thing to do. Particularly when you’re going from a book that’s very internal, like The Alienist, which is narrated in first person, to this very external, visual medium. It’s not reasonable to expect a recreation of every detail, or for there to not be additions or subtractions of the plot, changes of the pacing, and so on.

But there does need to be some relation. There are fundamental aspects of a book, often deep thematic or character elements, that are what made us enjoy reading it to begin with. When you start losing that stuff, you end up with the feeling like you’re watching something completely different, a generic thing where the characters have the same names but that’s pretty much where the resemblance ends.

Which is my long way of saying that I really hate the TV show TNT made of The Alienist. A lot. Like yelling at the TV a lot. I also can’t say how anyone who hasn’t read the book is going to feel about the show. I just know that I’m absolutely furious.

(Spoilers for The Alienist tv show and book follow.)

I’ve read the book, The Alienist, multiple times. I’ve got some complicated feelings about it as a queer person, because it does hit that crime drama aspect we’ve all seen way too much of: the victims are sex workers, specifically young men and boys dressed in women’s clothing, with at least some of them arguably gay or transgender. Even this statement of mine is complicated by the fact that the book’s set in late 19th century New York City and Caleb Carr went as historically accurate as he could with things… so things like “trans” as a linguistic concept didn’t yet exist. And the narrator, Moore, is very much a heterosexual white cis dude who has very typical heterosexual white cis dude feelings about sexuality and gender.

(Also to note, the murdered sex workers in this book being young boys makes it much more oogie, to use a technical word. One of the few times you really feel the author step into the narrative to explain things is when Moore notes that attitudes toward children and adulthood and work of all kinds were pretty different back then.)

On the other hand, I’ve always felt when reading The Alienist that there’s still an effort to humanize and empathize with the victims. There’s an effort to at least acknowledge the varied gender and sexuality of the young people the investigators encounter. Some are obviously dressing as women for the sake of expediency; others explicitly do so as an expression of their gender in the only environment they find will allow them to do it. And the alienist of the title himself, Dr. Kreizler, doesn’t treat the victims like they are the problem.

I don’t feel like the tv show hits on any of this nuance. There are plenty of scenes in seedy brothels that are set up to highlight the wrongness of the situation–but it never feels like there’s any sympathy reserved for the sex workers; rather, they’re there to drive the lurid ick factor. The only time it really feels like there is sympathy for them is when they’re shown outside of work, and not coincidentally, dressed in socially acceptable clothing.

I don’t think it helps my negative feelings toward the TV show that there’s a sort of subplot present about syphilis and it only really exists in connection with two incredibly unsavory gay characters. The second is a random suspect that I can only figure got added into the TV show to help pad it out to ten episodes, and to nominally give high society a reason to be up Kreizler’s business about the investigation… except nothing really comes of it after that suspect gets killed and dumped in the harbor. It’s a weird disjoint in the structure of the show’s plot.

I find that especially annoying because there is a whole thread in the book about outside interference in the investigation of this killer. That’s the entire reason Teddy Roosevelt lets Kreizler and his team investigate, because there are a lot of people who want it swept under the rug. They also don’t want to see Kreizler succeed because his theories as an alienist challenge a lot of accepted societal beliefs that the wealthy rely on to keep the social order. Which I imagine is something harder to depict on television, perhaps, but it wouldn’t have hurt them to try.

I’ve recommended the book to my housemate, who really loves Criminal Minds because it reads like a historical ancestor to that show. The major theory that Kreizler has that gets him in so much trouble with his peers and with people high above him is a thing he calls “context.” Which means he believes that if the circumstances of a person’s life are fully understood, that will also render their actions understandable–though obviously not forgivable. The latter point is something a lot of character in the book have a difficult time understanding, because they’re committed to the idea that criminal behavior is a sign of some kind of mental illness. It’s another major point in the book that Kreizler butts heads with people because he finds most criminals he’s called to consult on as an alienist sane and quite rational within their own context.

Which is another position I think the show really misses out on. Probably because it’s more interested in depicting Kreizler as some kind of tortured and miserable genius than the procedural aspect of the story.

And that is ultimately my biggest problem with the show. There are a lot of interesting characters in the book. The narrator, Moore, is probably the least interesting of them. But it’s got a great ensemble cast thing going (hello, another thing I love about Criminal Minds) and there’s real depth to all of the relationships. It’s a group of people who find support and strength in each others’ company, which helps them combat the grim task they face.

The show seems to have focused on the characters to the detriment of everyone but the Isaacsons–who are absolutely adorable. With a drab and grim and miserable New York City as the backdrop, the show seems to feel the only way the characters are going to be interesting is if they are even more drab and grim and miserable than the city, and I cannot begin to say how much I hate it. I spent ten episodes wondering why the hell any of these people wanted to be around each other–I certainly didn’t want to be around any of them. We keep being told verbally that Kreizler, Moore, and Roosevelt are friends, but there’s never anything on the screen that makes you feel like they do more than barely tolerate each other. Kreizler transforms from an occasionally overly-clinical intellectual who loves a good, merry meal with his nearest and dearest to a self-isolating edge lord who slaps Sara Howard in the face for being too curious.

Yes, we have arrived at the fiery, magmatic heart of my rage. Let’s be clear, I already pretty much hated the show for how goddamn unpleasant it made everyone but the Isaacson brothers. But the full character assassination of Sara Howard is what had me shouting at my television.

(Note that there are really only two female characters in the main cast of the book: Sara and Mary. And there, too, Mary gets fridged. Sigh.)

Sara Howard, in the book, is a giant badass. She’s determined to be the first female police officer in New York City, and being Roosevelt’s secretary is step number one on that path. She carries a pistol in her purse at all times, she knows how to use it, and she has no compunction against shooting kneecaps. (The pistol, I will note, makes no appearance until the final episode of the show.) She takes exactly zero shit off of anyone, especially not Moore, who she’s known since they were children. It’s worth noting in the second book that she explicitly says she’s made the choice to remain a spinster because she wants to retain her independence and, as unfair as that is, it’s the only way she’s got to do it.

So putting her in some kind of stupid shit quasi-love triangle with Moore and Kreizler? Are you fucking serious? Kreizler slapping her for nosing into his past (Kreizler would never) and then her just taking it? Really? Moore going on about how he has super real feelings for her (Moore would never) and her not shooting him down cold? FUCKING REALLY?

I’m not saying that Sara Howard is a stone-cold lioness who never feels fear. She’s wonderfully human, because she does get sick, and she does get scared, and she does get herself in over her head. But she is most definitely not there at any point to be an object onto which men project their precious emotions. And she certainly doesn’t take that shit with passive, wide-eyed confusion.

This is the stuff that has made me loathe The Alienist TV show. It’s a fundamental miss on what made the book so damn good as a procedural/mystery. There’s plenty of drama and tension when it comes to hunting down a goddamn serial killer (even if they didn’t have that term back then) without manufacturing a series of internal problems for the characters. Frankly, all the focus on all of the investigators (except the Isaacsons) being miserable and dysfunctional people took away from the actual plot. There’s less development of the investigation, less time spent making the necessary connections, less good build up to the discovery and hunt of the killer. That also means there’s almost nothing of what’s going on in the city, with the mobsters and the rich having a proxy war via the investigation–only vague hints that dangle and goes nowhere. The plot feels ancillary and incomplete and the show is ultimately unsatisfying as a mystery.

It’s a frustrating mess that I’m sorry I paid good money on Amazon to watch. Maybe it’s an audience expectation issue, for me. I know too much about the book. I expected it to be a satisfying procedural, my Criminal Minds in the 19th Century on the screen at last. Maybe I wouldn’t have hated it as much if I’d never read the book, though I think I still would have stopped watching after the second episode because I have little patience for watching a bunch of miserable people being miserable at each other when there’s no plot glue to hold them together. Maybe I’m just not the target audience for the show, even if I was for the book.

But even if they decided it needed to be character drama and not procedural, look: if you have only one female character, the last fucking thing she needs is to be the object of a romance plot. Thank you and good night.

3 thoughts on “I Have Problems With “The Alienist”

  1. Reply Aphotic Ink Sep 12,2018 15:12

    Having bounced off the TVT show in the first episode with a dislike of everyone except Sara and the Isaacsons, I am now deeply interinter in picking up the book. Thank you.

  2. Reply Michelle Stevenson Oct 8,2020 19:33

    I hate the show too, and I’m repulsed that there might be a season 3

    • Reply Alex Oct 8,2020 19:37

      If they did The Angel of Darkness in season 2 (didn’t watch it so I’m not sure) then what the fuck would they even do for season 3? It’ll probably be even worse.

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