On TV, It’s Raining Men: An Alienist and a Versace

Two recent shows were grim and stomach-turning. Why am I bored and ambivalent?

Dakota Fanning as Sara Howard in "The Alienist." Photo: TNT.

On the surface, the brooding, richly atmospheric TNT adaptation of the Caleb Carr period thriller novel The Alienist should work. The cast, led by the talented German actor Daniel Brühl, is, for the most part, capable; the Old World visuals meant to evoke NYC at the turn of the 19th century (courtesy of Budapest) are stunning; the source material — revolving around the search for a serial killer — was a big best-seller back in 1994.

That is part of the problem. What may have been innovative and hard-hitting 20-plus years ago is sadly passé. You can thank 15 very long years of the now-defunct CSI franchise for exploring the same territory of criminal forensics, albeit more sophisticated than in the late 1890s. Yes, Virginia, we’ve seen this all before and in many different permutations. Yawn. If I had to summarize The Alienist, I’d call it CSI NYC: The Gilded Age.

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The story centers on the tireless effort of the protagonist, Lazlo Kreizler (Brühl), the titular alienist, which is an old term for a psychiatrist or psychologist. Kreizler wants to find the culprit behind the gruesome slayings of young male prostitutes in the Gotham underbelly. Rendered a social pariah by virtue of his profession — fashionable society considers him disreputable for some cryptic reason — Kreizler puts together a task force of similar misfits and oddballs to solve the crime. Among them are John Moore (Luke Evans), a dissolute upper-crust newspaper illustrator, and Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), a feisty secretary to Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (a lamentable Brian Geraghty) and first woman to work at the New York Police Department. Except for the casting mishap of Geraghty, the actors acquit themselves well.

The real mystery is why it took so long for this book to be transferred to the silver or small screen. It also doesn’t help that The Alienist seems so inert and static. It’s like viewing a lushly detailed museum diorama, not a period procedural.

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Unlike The Alienist, the second installment to American Crime Storythe Emmy-winning FX anthology series helmed by Ryan Murphy, is anything but inert. In fact, The Assassination of Gianni Versace is downright lurid and seedy — like the headlines of supermarket tabloids that drool over crimes that merge celebrity gloss and gore.

It’s also unrelentingly grim and stomach-turning, focusing mostly on the killer of the Italian fashion icon, Andrew Cunanan (a very creepy Darren Criss), and the various murders he committed before Versace (Edgar Ramirez, a dead-ringer). One was Cunanan’s former lover, David Madison (an affecting Cody Fern), a Minneapolis architect; another was a friend of Madison’s, Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock, in a brief cameo). Watching Criss’ Cunanan — a glib, name-dropping gigolo turned cross-country killing machine — senselessly stab, shoot and bludgeon one person after another is not my idea of grand entertainment. The show is so awash in darkness, it would make an antidepressant overdose seem uplifting.

Also, the all-encompassing concentration on Cunanan makes the series title a misnomer: by the fourth episode, very little of Versace, sister Donatella (Penelope Cruz, with a hoot of an Italian accent), Versace’s lover Antonio D’Amico (a sensitive Ricky Martin) or their retinue is seen. That’s a shame and a mistake. The series could have used more larger-than-life Versace glamour in flashbacks to counter the chronic misery.

No one really knows what set Cunanan off. Murphy doesn’t succeed in making me want to know why; I’m just glad he’s gone. I feel sorry for the surviving families of the victims, these people unlucky enough to fall into this psycho killer’s orbit — or to be, as in the case of Versace, his fixation. Serial killing is sad stuff, and not for the squeamish.