The first time I saw the teaser-trailer for The Alienist, I was already waiting for its broadcast. It was everything I enjoy in visual entertainment—detailed sets and costumes, great actors and a plot that one can easily label as either a mystery or a thriller, or both, and a decidedly film noir ambience. Plus, I’ve been a fan of Dakota Fanning since I Am Sam, and I haven’t seen Luke Evans and Daniel Brühl deliver a bad performance yet. Add to that a standing joke in our house that if there is no dead body within the first ten minutes of a film, it’s not worth watching. The Alienist is about a lot of dead bodies (of boy prostitutes in New York City in 1896), so, of course I was going to see it.
I have to admit though that when I finally sat down to watch Episode 1, I was trying hard not to fall asleep. I wasn’t sure if it was because it was bad. What I was sure of was that I couldn’t have passed a fair judgment as to whether it was good or bad because the electric fan was making a lot of noise and I was having a hard time making out the dialogue. But I waited for The Alienist for months so I was not about to give up that easily. So, I tried again. This time, with the aircon on and the electric fan off. No unnecessary noise to keep me from understanding every word spoken.
Without the distracting whirring noise of the fan, I was wide awake and completely focused. And I noticed everything. The production design was impressive (it should be with a budget of $5M per episode) and the cinematographer was a master at using the right camera filters to heighten the noir-ish mood. But there was something off. The scenes were being played out, and the characters were moving and talking, with a kind of exaggeration that reminded me of silent films. Too in your face is the best way I can put it. For instance, when the first victim was found, the dialogue had already established that the boy’s eyes were missing. Still, the overhead camera zoomed in slowly on the sprawled body (with suspenseful music) and on to the boy’s empty eye socket as the scene ended and shifted to the next. That was overkill.
Fortunately, that too in your face impression was gone in Episode 2. I wondered if it was a case of each episode having a different director. I searched a bit and found out that Episode 1 was directed by Hossein Amini who wrote and directed The Two Faces of January, a film that I consider to this day to be one of the most sophisticated thrillers I have ever seen. So, it was rather surprising that Episode 1 of The Alienist didn’t impress me on that level—not even near.
I’ve seen only the first two episodes at this point. The Alienist is grisly and gruesome but I already expected that. I do intend to see the eight remaining episodes.