It was hard for The Alienist to escape comparisons to “True Detective in 19th century New York,” as the first season of this macabre crime drama came out just on the tail end of the HBO detective show’s pop culture domination. People were looking for another prestigious replacement for the crime drama, and despite some of the surface-level similarities — a serial killer who carves up their victims and leaves a series of grotesque clues, which a team of morally dubious detectives chase through the seedy underbelly of America — they wouldn’t find it with The Alienist. The TNT crime drama based on the novel by Caleb Carr was more pulp than prestige, with elements dipping into melodrama and even camp at times. Led by a likable group of actors who easily filled in their somewhat stereotypical roles — Daniel Bruhl as the brooding alienist (an early term for a psychologist), Dakota Fanning as the ambitious aspiring detective, Luke Evans as the sensitive newspaperman — it was macabre and grotesque, sure, but it was also a lot more fun.
Two years after The Alienist first premiered on TNT (and after the show looked like it wouldn’t continue past its original intent as a miniseries), The Alienist: Angel of Darkness continues the first season’s penchant for the lurid with a slightly lighter, more accessible touch. Based on Carr’s 1997 sequel to The Alienist, the second season shifts the attention away from Bruhl’s arrogant Dr. Laszlo Kreizler and gives it to Fanning’s Sara Howard, now a private detective. The result is a series that is less about the show’s unique conceit of a 19th century psychologist who pioneers the early uses of criminal profiling, and more of a typical detective drama. But though the novelty of the show has gone, and the unsettling aura has faded a bit (don’t worry, it’s still as gory and grisly as ever), the characters and twists are so good that the show still feels fresh.
Sara Howard gets to take the lead in The Alienist: Angel of Darkness, which picks up a year after the events of The Alienist. Sara has opened her own private detective agency and built up a reputation as a champion of disenfranchised women, but has only since gotten cases involving stolen jewelry. But Sara and her old friends Laszlo and John will soon get drawn into a plot involving kidnapped babies and a corrupt maternity hospital that takes advantage of its unfortunate patients.
The season opens with malnourished young mother (Hebe Beardsall) at the Lying-In maternity hospital, who wakes to discover that her baby has disappeared from its crib. She flies into a panic and wakes half the patients at the hospital before the staff restrain her. Cut to a few months later, and the mother has been tried and convicted of murdering her baby, based on the testimony of the hospital staff and the ruthless Dr. Markoe (Michael McElhatton), despite the baby’s body never having been found. Sarah and Laszlo, ever the crusaders for justice, protest her sentence all the way to her horrific execution by electric chair. Despondent at their failure, Sarah sets to work on investigating the disappearance of the mother’s baby, throwing herself into the case after another mother, the wife of a Spanish consulate, discovers her infant baby stolen from her house. After being reluctant to bring Laszlo on board after the alienist had been enjoying renewed fame due to his part in solving last season’s case, Sara turns to him for expertise when she discovers the kidnapper leaving behind several sick clues, including a porcelain doll whose eyes had been drawn over in a twisted imitation of the Victorian practice of post-mortem photographs of dead children.
Meanwhile, John acts as ever the supportive assistant for both Sara and Laszlo, though his season 1 role as Laszlo’s sole friend and social graces “translator” for the blunt alienist has been rendered redundant. Instead, John is left to pine over Sara and be caught in between his new fiancée Violet (Emily Barber) and her godfather William Randolph Hearst (a sleazy Matt Letscher, playing this season’s historical figure in the footsteps of Brian Geraghty’s sorely missed Theodore Roosevelt). But it still is refreshing to see Evans play against type as the sensitive supporting lead to Fanning’s Sara and Bruhl’s Laszlo, and his subplot gets to see the series delve more into the rampant culture of corruption plaguing turn of the century New York.
Fanning is clearly relishing becoming the de facto lead in Angel of Darkness, turning in a performance that is a bit more confident and less restrained than in the last season. It’s also a performance that is less multifaceted than last season, as Sara’s tendency to charge head-on into scenarios reads a little too “strong female character,” but it’s a performance that is in keeping with the show’s newer, slightly more accessible approach. The show seems to shape itself to Sara’s growth into an independent woman, with her own team of assistant detectives, more brightly lit than before and following the beats of a classic detective drama rather than the macabre dealings with the mind of last season. While it’s a bit of a shame that Laszlo has faded into the background a bit to become more of a supporting character to Sara’s story (and that we see a little less of the criminal profiling techniques that defined the first season), Bruhl’s performance is still immensely enjoyable — Laszlo is as arrogant and bullish as ever, and seeing him clash with Sara in their opposing interrogations of witnesses is so fun to watch.
The Alienist: Angel of Darkness feels more slight than the first season in the way its mystery plays out, but is still an enjoyable watch thanks to the show’s playing up of the melodrama (embrace it, this is pulp not prestige, folks!) between its core characters and the expanded thrills and twists. With the involvement of a group of gangsters in the plot, the series becomes breathlessly action-packed as it never had before. While the the show bears more similarities to Peaky Blinders this season rather than last season’s morbidly camp similarities to Hannibal, The Alienist: Angel of Darkness is a fantastic Victorian crime drama in its own right that deserves to escape the shadow of True Detective.
The Alienist: Angel of Darkness premieres on TNT on July 19, 2020.
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