TNT's new drama series The Alienist (production designer: Mara LePere-Schloop) has probably already drawn you in with its star-studded cast featuring Luke Evans, Daniel Brühl, and Dakota Fanning. The subject matter is fascinating as well, and takes nineteenth century intrigue to New York City. However, while Teddy Roosevelt and other historical figures appear in the series, criminal psychologist Lazlo Kreizler on The Alienist is not a real person. Only his profession is grounded in fact.
The series is based on Caleb Carr's novel trilogy The Alienist, The Angel of Darkness, and Surrender, New York. It centers on Laszlo, the alienist in question, and his quest to catch a serial killer with a newspaper illustrator and a secretary from the police department. While Laszlo is a fictional character, the world was heavily researched to be as realistic as possible.
"It was important to me that everything in my book was true," said Carr in a 1994 interview with The New York Times, "except for my story." He told the NYT that he actually lied when he initially pitched the story to publishers, claiming it to be based on true events. Having also studied military history and written non-fiction, Carr wanted to write about a serial killer and simply thought it would be "more interesting" to set the story in the past. At the time, publicity agents described the book as "Ragtime Meets Silence of the Lambs," according to the Times, which is a delightfully '90s description of the thriller.
Kreizler isn't based on Carr, either, though Carr admits to being inspired by his own gritty New York upbringing. "It's safe to assume I know something about family violence and childhood violence from firsthand experience," he said in the same interview, but it appears in his writing more as a theme. "I don't like confessional, autobiographical fiction," he said. "I find it boring and insulting."
The actor playing this role certainly didn't find the source material boring. "I couldn’t stop reading it," said Brühl in an interview with Collider. "I think I read it in a day or two. It was the combination of it being a gripping psychological thriller with very compelling characters. It is also a fascinating history lesson about New York, at the time. It was probably the most fascinating city in the world because it was an exploding melting pot with all of these different aspects and social classes, from the Vanderbilts and Roosevelts, down to the rotten tenements. Also, you get to learn about the politics, and the corruption within the police department, at that time, and there’s the combination of having real characters, and then the fictional characters."
He also has a personal connection to his character's profession. Brühl's wife is a psychotherapist. "She was equally happy that I was offered this part," the actor told Collider, "because it deals with the beginning of the science of psychology, which is a fascinating science."
So Brühl's character is a work of fiction, but his profession is real. The term "alienist" is in fact an archaic way of describing a psychiatrist or psychologist. You may have heard it on television before, in The Originals (creator: Julie Plec), Penny Dreadful (costume designer: Gabriella Pescucci), and Sherlock (executive producer: Rebecca Eaton) as well as various films and novels.
According to Merriam-Webster, the word was first used in 1864 and while obsolete, can be used today — but now mostly refers to a psychologist who is assessing someone for legal purposes — does a person have the mental capacity to stand trial, for example.
It is a fascinating science, but this was a particularly scary time in history to showcase it. Remember, in the nineteenth century women were sent to asylums for having a feeling, pretty much. It will be interesting to see how this character navigates those kinds of social beliefs while trying to solve this crime. Luckily, The Alienist (writer: Kristina Lauren Anderson, one episode) seems to be well-researched and grounded in fact, so while we're gripping the edges of our seats, we'll learn something as well.