The Alienist


Sometimes destiny reveals itself in the strangest places, and the most unexpected ways. So it was I came to this momentous realisation: add a touch of colouring to her hair, a sober suit jacket, and a shirt buttoned all the way up, and Dakota Fanning – once the child actor who stole hearts opposite sensitive Sean Penn in I Am Sam – was born to take the lead role in the glossy Hollywood movie on the life and career of Philomena Cunk that is surely already in the planning stages.

Granted, you might have to squint to see it, and use your imagination a little. But trying to work out just who it was that Fanning was vaguely reminding me of, and the sudden, rushing joy of realising it was La Cunk, was one of the few things that kept me entertained – and, indeed required me to use my imagination – through the long, grim, mumbling, grumbling, dull and entirely competent opening episode of The Alienist.

Arriving in its entirety on Netflix this week, the 10-part series is a belated adaptation of Caleb Carr’s bestselling historical crime novel, first published 1994. The book is a fine, dense, swirling synthesis of elements – a lot of Sherlock Holmes, a little Silence Of The Lambs, and a sliver of Se7en, spiced with a smattering of real-life historical figures and events – knitted together in page-turning style to tell the tale of a maverick band of investigators led by a misfit genius, hunting a mysterious serial killer in the fuggy, bloody New York City of the late 1890s.

The book is titled after its Holmesian sleuth, Dr Laszlo Kreizler, a questing practitioner in the fledgling field of psychology, who uses new-fangled ideas and methods – outlandish techniques like fingerprinting, and concepts of criminal profiling – to pursue the mystery, while the contemptuous meat-and-potatoes police force regard him as a quack.

All good stuff, and, from the moment the book started doing the rounds, potential for a screen treatment was clear. Work on an adaptation first started in 1995, and, had this TV series appeared back then, it may well have stood out. Indeed, there’s no reason Carr’s story shouldn’t still make for a terrific series today – it’s just that the series that has been made today is utterly by the numbers.

Some of the problem is that, in recent years, we’ve had a deluge of gruesome Victorian / Sherlockian serial killing – from Ripper Street to Penny Dreadful, by way of movies like From Hell – as well as a couple of TV series that have applied a hard, odd, modernist perspective to the strangeness of the past, to create something new, in particular the blessed and holy Deadwood and, more recently, The Knick, the berserk historical medical drama set in Manhattan during roughly the same period as The Alienist.

In The Knick, you felt a high, weird, wild electrical crackle in the air as the old and new worlds collided. But in The Alienist, while the period detail is handsome, and the crimes horribly grimy (the killer specialises in eviscerating children, some of whom have been forced into prostitution), all you see is third-hand serial killer movie clichés, dressed up in corsets and bowler hats.

The three leads – Daniel Brühl as Kreizler; Luke Evans as his sturdy, Watson-like sidekick John Moore; and Fanning as Sara Howard the incisive police secretary who joins them, despite Moore feeling it’s no work for a lady, by gad – are able, yet come across as curiously unengaged by the material. Still. Roll on the Cunkopic.



10pm, BBC Two

When the BBC rolled out a season of comedy pilots last year, this sketch show was one that looked worth revisiting, and now it returns for a four-part series. The topline is it’s an all black troupe – Vivienne Acheampong, Samson Kayo, Gbemisola Ikumelo, John MacMillan, Roxanne Sternberg, Tom Moutchi – and many of the skits are both gleefully dumb yet particularly pointed, playing on the casting tropes of sci-fi films (black superhero Eclipse gets arrested for beating up a heavily-armed gang) and British TV dramas like Midsomer Murders (given a 1970s Blaxploitation makeover). Elsewhere, there are enthusiastic parodies of Nigeria’s low-budget Nollywood movies, represented tonight by the excellent-looking Faster Faster Angry Angry (“If you like cars and guns and angry people…”). In other places, though, there’s just general daft nonsense, like a detective with a Snapchat addiction. In common with every sketch show ever made, not everything hits, but there are enough ideas and silliness zinging around to carry it through.


Kiss Me First

10pm, Channel 4

Social media went into a frenzy last

summer, when papped pictures appeared of The Queen apparently enjoying a secret romantic walk with Sir David Attenborough through a hidden path in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. But it turns out they were just filming The Queen’s Green Planet (9pm, STV), a documentary about Her Maj’s legacy project to create a global network of connected forests across the Commonwealth. As the pair amble around, the conversation touches on climate change and conkers, and HRM cracks a few gags – it’s not often

you get to see the Queen in conversation, so, if that’s your bag, worth a look. Meanwhile, for a more depressing glimpse of the near future, the engrossing virtual reality mystery continues on Channel 4. Leila begins to worry Adrian, the mysterious guru of Red Pill, might have sinister plans for another member of the group. But her suspicions are driving a wedge between her and Tess, who remains devoted to, and dependent upon him.


Stephen: The Murder That Changed A Nation

9pm, BBC One

Marking the 25th anniversary of the death of Stephen Lawrence, BBC One is showing this detailed three-part documentary across three consecutive nights this week. It begins by looking back to April 22 1993, and events leading up to what remains Britain’s most notorious racially-motivated murder – the night a nineteen-year-old black man was killed at a bus stop by a group of white youths in an unprovoked attack. Featuring new interviews with Doreen and Neville Lawrence, the film explores the police investigation that followed, as the suspects remained free, despite tip-offs from the community. When the charges against the suspects were later dropped, Doreen realised she needed to take action into her own hands. Episodes two and three, charting her tireless struggle for justice, the failures of the official investigation, and the questions of racism and corruption swirling around the police, follow tomorrow and Thursday.


American Crime Story: The Assassination Of Gianni Versace

9pm, BBC Two

As this astonishing series nears its end, it gets even more brain scrambling. It’s the penultimate episode, and the backwards-running structure stretches back to its furthest points, to offer two parallel, contrasting portraits of childhood, in two different timeframes. In 1957, we glimpse the young Gianni Versace, aged 10 or so, and encouraged by his dressmaker mother to follow his heart and learn about and designing clothes, despite the taunts of other kids and disapproval of his teachers. Flipping forward to 1980 comes a fuller and more unsettling picture of Andrew Cunanan around the same age – singled out for special treatment and pressurised to succeed by his father, Modesto, a stockbroker with big dreams, and given to making big exaggerations about himself. As Cunanan becomes a young man, however, the house of cards Modesto has built begins to collapse. Darren Criss’s performance as Cunanan is extraordinary again, while the casting of the child actor playing young Cunanan (Edouard Holdener) is spooky.


Latin Music USA

9pm, BBC Four

A repeat for this sumptuous, four-part documentary, which covers just about everything you could need for a solid grounding in the history of Latin music in America. Packed with fantastic archive footage, the series begins by exploring the music that Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrants brought with them when they arrived in the States across the 1950s and 60s. As they clung on to that music as a statement of their social identity, the sounds and styles came to influence mainstream American pop, dance and jazz, in ways that can still be heard today. Carlos Santana is interviewed in this opener about the impact Afro-Cuban rhythms had on his own music, and the impact his music subsequently had on the rock scene, following his breakthrough performance at Woodstock. It’s complemented by a showing of Wim Wenders’ great 1998 film on Ry Cooder’s hook-up with the Cuban veterans of The Buena Vista Social Club (9pm), and an Arena film on Celia Cuz, “The Queen Of Salsa” (11.40pm).


The Woman In White

9pm, BBC One

Thank the gods. After laying siege to Saturday nights for an unremitting 10 years solid, Troy: Fall Of A City has finally ended. In celebration, the BBC has giddily broken open its favourite big period dress-up box again, to hustle out another version of a much-adapted book that it has only adapted itself twice before, because there are no other books out there. This latest go at Wilkie Collins’s gothic mystery begins all dark and glum and screaming, and is just the thing for a nice cup of tea, although it would make much more sense for it to be on in the autumn, as the days draw in. EastEnders’ Ben Hardy plays the clean-cut young art teacher Walter Hartright, who encounters a ghostly woman dressed all in white one dark night on Hampstead Heath. He offers her assistance, but is later shocked to discover she has escaped from a lunatic asylum. What in merry costumed hell is going on? The cast includes a brooding Charles Dance, which helps.

Last week –

When you pare it back, study the performances closely, and cut away all the careful detailing and delicate colouring he layers on top, you begin to see that, like all the greats, Mark Strong has developed to the stage where he now has two essential styles of acting: with hair, and without. Even within individual genres, he applies this fundamental rule strictly, and, once you learn to read the signs his head offers, you can guess the general direction of the emotional journey on which he wishes to lead you.

Take, for example, the spy thriller. In a piece that requires nuance, uncertainty, irony, even a hint of genuine, hard-won melancholy – such as a John Le Carré adaptation like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – Strong will grow some hair, covering his skull in a cloudy manner that offers a poetic visual parallel to the notion that truth is always an opaque concept, and what lies behind it only partly glimpsed at best.

But, if action is the key, he will shave it all off, offering the full bony bullet head as a clear yet subtle hint that bones and bullets will be the order of the day.

This is the Mark Strong who has shown up for Deep State (Fox), a piece of humourless yet faintly hooky pulp espionage, through which he prowls like a glum Lord Adonis who has arrived at a fancy dress party all done up as Ross Kemp, only to discover it was never a fancy dress party after all, and everyone was just playing a trick on him. In such a situation, of course, there are only ever two options: go into a big sulk; or throw yourself into it. Admirably here, Strong manages to do both.

The story of a retired agent pulled back into action just when he thought he was out, Deep State involves plots within plots and betrayals within betrayals, shady intelligence schemes and state-sponsored assassination, all revolving around the Iranian nuclear programme and dodgy US business dealings, maybe. Really, though, it’s an excuse for post-Bourne action scenes in which Strong displays a talent for improvising with kitchenware: a mug here, a microwave there, the aerial from a transistor radio in the other place.

Depressingly, though, rather than the Le Carré or even Bourne crowd, Deep State is aimed at the lonely 24 fan, who likes his shades of grey in black and white, and misses a hero who tortures people for information, because it’s just common sense, while angstily blaming his victims for making him be that way. In the first episode, Strong used pliers to pull out the fingernails of a passing suspicious non-European (played by Nabil Elouahabi, a good actor who must be getting sick of roles like this), while explaining he would take a hammer to his teeth next. Let’s hope he grows his curls out for the next one.