A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this TV show.
Dark drama revolves around murders of young male prostitutes; investigation involves political figures, the clergy, and law enforcement. A young murder victim is described as a "degenerate who dresses himself as a girl for the pleasure of men" and is called "it" by a man clearly painted as a villain. But our sympathies are with the group of investigators trying to stop the murderer; they're depicted as mostly noble and intrepid.
Positive Role Models
John is a heroic character with sympathy for victims, yet he has a long-standing relationship with a sex worker he pays for companionship. Laszlo is socially awkward and blunt, but is kind and helpful to the disturbed children and adults he works with. Sarah is perhaps the most heroic of the main characters, a strong-minded and brave woman who's the first woman working for the New York police.
Violence & Scariness
Intense and bloody: The body of a (10-year-old?) boy is shown repeatedly and at length. We see patches of missing flesh with bone protruding, a slashed throat, a severed hand; camera zooms in on two dark eyeless sockets. The killer cooking that eye, along with the kidneys; he lets his pet cat lap at a bit of bloody tissue. Murder victim's injuries described at length: genitals removed, chest and abdomen "ripped open." A man with advanced syphilis has large disfiguring chancres on his face, is shown beating his head against a brick wall until blood pours down his face. Drama revolves around young male prostitutes -- expect to see customers looking them over, picking them up, touching them in a sexually threatening manner (and much worse for murder victims).
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
A main character has a relationship with a sex worker in a bordello; we see him undressing her, her naked backside visible in a mirror, and then her on top of him having sex with moaning and thrusting. She is visible fully nude from the side, but her breasts are obscured; her male partner is completely dressed. Afterward, he drops a coin into her hand. Scenes are set at brothels with male and female sex workers; expect to hear language connected with sex work, including vintage phrases: a "boy whore," a "molly house full of rich pansies."
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Cursing is period-correct, with the occasional "hell" or "damn" and lots of insulting language leveled at ethnic and racial minorities and sex workers. A murder victim is referred to as a "boy whore," a "degenerate," and a "little piece of dago trash." Other language may send users scrambling to look up vintage slang: "panderer," "lush," "billy noodle," "mutton shunter."
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Characters drink alcohol at parties and dinners; Sarah smokes cigarettes.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that The Alienist is a dark, violent drama based on Caleb Carr's best-selling 1994 novel. Set in 19th-century New York, it revolves around a series of gruesome child murders. Viewers see the body of a bloody, mutilated young boy at length; it's said that his genitals were severed, and his killer is shown cooking the victim's body parts. Young male prostitutes are shown looking for customers; men talk to them and push them in a sexually aggressive manner. A trip through the infamous Bellevue asylum shows mentally disturbed people screaming, fighting, being held down/restrained by chains, and cowering in jail cells. A main character has a relationship with a prostitute at a brothel. They have sex; moaning and thrusting are heard, and she's shown fully nude from the side (her breasts are covered). Cursing is generally period-mild ("damn," "hell"), but there's lots of insulting language about sex workers and racial/ethnic/sexual minorities: "whore," "dago," "degenerate," "pansies." Adults drink at parties and dinners; a main character smokes cigarettes. Daniel Bruhl, Luke Evans, and Dakota Fanning co-star.
Is It Any Good?
Menacing, bloody, and as pitch-black as TV dramas get, this period piece might veer over the line into exploitative and trashy if it weren't so artfully done. Murder mysteries about young dead sex workers are a staple on network TV police procedurals, of course, and though they're usually female, flipping the gender doesn't remove the staleness from the premise. But setting the action in 19th-century NYC? Now, that has promise, and clearly some money's been spent re-creating a Gangs of New York-era Manhattan. There are puffed sleeves and high collars, corsets and horse-drawn carriages, fires in ash barrels and clacky old typewriters and chamber pots. The horribly mutilated body discovered in the show's first episode is found on "the new bridge": The Williamsburg.
But most of all, there are cops and investigators prising apart a particularly juicy mystery using really old-school police methods (fingerprinting is state of the art), and giving us fascinating peeks at a long-gone world. It helps, too, and the band of sleuths who come together to solve The Alienist's murders include strong proto-feminist Sarah and a pair of Jewish detectives who get short shrift on the mighty-Irish police force. These characters have a modern "other" status that presents an easier access point to viewers who might be turned off by seeing a whole bunch of smug white guys solving a murder. This show isn't for kids, and it isn't a comfort TV watch -- but for lovers of vintage crime and dramas about very bad things, The Alienist will cast a spell.
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.