Binge-r #85: The Alienist + Homecoming Queens
THE ALIENIST S1
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All 10 episodes now streaming
The New York of 1896 comes to malignant life in The Alienist, an addictive crime drama whose immaculate period detail doesn’t just set the tone but also seeps into the detective thriller’s plot to create a world that harbours grave crimes without concern. Musty rooms give way to pollution-drenched streets in this adaptation of Caleb Carr’s 1994 best-seller, which uses the hunt for a monstrous serial killer preying on impoverished boys pressed into service as sex workers to dig into the realities of how our cities came to be and where their legacies of inequality took root. As with the magisterial 1920s-set procedural Babylon Berlin [review here], the era’s everyday activities and supposedly respectable institutions have failings that defy any nostalgic gloss.
The police force, for example, is an Irish-American guild whose corruption protects the wealthy and well-connected. It’s why the new police commissioner, future U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) reluctantly allows his sometimes friend Dr Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl) to investigate the increasingly public murders. Kreizler is both brilliant and punishing, a man creating the discipline of criminal psychology before it even has a name (he’s called an alienist because he treats the alienated). The fierceness of his demands, and secrets he tries to uncover, bind to him his friend and colleague, society pages illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans), and Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), Roosevelt’s secretary and the first woman to work for the unwelcoming NYPD.
The plotting is measured – paced to allow the audience to take in the immersive production design and finely sketched slides of late 19th century life. Suffragettes march in the streets and audiences cower before Thomas Edison’s Vitascope, while the investigators move between sumptuous high society and decaying slums that appear to be in different dimensions as opposed to neighbourhoods. There’s criminal argot interlaced with the outline of modern technology – “loathsome machine,” Moore’s grandmother says of a telephone – and it all serves the purpose of cruelly defining a society of extremes where great wealth can render nightmarish acts as a birthright.
There are trace elements of Sherlock Holmes and Watson to Kreizler and Moore, plus the grisly reveals of The Silence of the Lambs and Manhunter’s obsessive inquisitor trying to understand his quarry’s pathology, but amid the expertly staged viscera the journey into darkness is not solely about the hunt for a murderer. The camera follows these characters down darkened hallways, but also into their own fears; it has the patience to capture the respectable Moore’s desires, Howard’s struggles with expectations, and Kreizler’s own flaws. A modern metropolis is taking shape in The Alienist, but the show has a compelling feel for how individuals might fall to pieces.
In Brief: Homecoming Queens (SBS on Demand): Character-based humour has its own rhythm and this offbeat series available through SBS on Demand hits that and holds it in the tale of reunited best friends heading in opposite directions but happy to clutch on to each other. Michelle (Michelle Law) and Chloe (Liv Hewson) are 20somethings worried they’re being defined by illness: the former has lost her hair due to alopecia and is hiding out with the latter, who is recovering from breast cancer and a mastectomy. The seven episodes are idiosyncratic and bite-sized (12 minutes a pop, astutely directed by Corrie Chen) as the pair struggle with awkward interactions, bodies that don’t match society’s norms, and – in what Michelle calls “the final frontier of our friendship” – a masturbatory aid Chloe has misplaced in her vagina. Whether it’s loopy or licentious, Law and co-creator Chloe Resson’s autobiographical comedy feels drawn from a genuinely deep dynamic instead of a handful of punchlines.
JUST ADDED MOVIES
New on Netflix: The great character actor John Hawkes plays a disgraced former police officer trying to find redemption through solving a murder in the gnarled independent drama Small Town Crime (2017, 92 minutes); the mother/daughter dynamic gets a bittersweet, if not always distinctive, take in The Meddler (2015, 103 minutes), with Susan Sarandon as the widowed mother who moves to Los Angeles to be near Rose Byrne’s daughter.
New on SBS On Demand: David Cronenberg’s compellingly charged vision of body horror reached obsessive heights with Dead Ringers (1988, 111 minutes), the story of two gynaecologist brothers (played by Jeremy Irons) whose connection breaks down; Robert Altman’s The Player (1992, 119 minutes) is an acidic takedown of Hollywood, filled with inside jokes and knowing casting as a studio executive (Tim Robbins) fights for survival.
New on Stan: A tender whirlwind of a comic odyssey shot on an iPhone, Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015, 85 minutes) follows two friends and transgender sex workers crossing Los Angeles for an unexpected reckoning; Greta Gerwig’s blithe comic smarts and Noah Baumbach’s love for the brittle and imperfect combine in the terrific comic-drama Frances Ha (2012, 83 minutes).
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