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The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.
What 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.
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What's the story?
Based on Caleb Carr's same-named 1994 book of the same name, THE ALIENIST picks up in New York's Gilded Age, as the body of a young murdered, mutilated boy is found -- which brilliant doctor and investigator Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl) connects to an earlier murder of two young children. Knowing that Kreizler is an "alienist" (he treats mentally disturbed patients who are "alienated" from their "true natures"), newly appointed police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) taps Kreizler and his friend and newspaper illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans) to investigate what he fears may be a mad repeat killer. Also joining them is Sarah Howard (Dakota Fanning), Roosevelt's secretary, who's vowed to become New York's first woman police detective. Using cutting-edge police techniques of the day, this band of outsiders sets out to solve a crime that grows to involve some of the city's most menacing power figures -- and may lead our heroes to see, hear, and do things they never imagined.
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.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about why murder mysteries are such an enduring staple of television drama. Think about some modern murder mysteries such as Law & Order and The Killing. How is The Alienist alike? How is it different?
Period dramas have to find ways to convey to the viewer where and when they're set. How does this drama tell the viewer where you are in space and time? Would you know without the opening titles? How?
If you've read the book this series is based on, how does it compare? What's the same? What was changed? Many people say "the book is always better." Is it true in this case?
What does this show say about women's roles at the time?
For kids who love historical drama
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