Here's Why TNT's 'The Alienist' Isn't About Aliens

Kata Vermes/TNT

Given its title, you'd be forgiven if you assume, sight unseen, that TNT's new drama is about the search for extraterrestrial life. It might be a shock, then, to learn that The Alienist (series writing credit: Kristina Lauren Anderson) takes place in 1800s New York and is decidedly not science-fiction. So what is an alienist, if it doesn't have anything to do with aliens? The upcoming series may have the most confusing title of the year, given that most viewers don't know Latin or speak fluent 19th century jargon — but thankfully, a little etymology lesson will clear things up in a jiffy.

First of all, a primer on what the show is actually about… given that the answer somehow isn't "UFOs." The Alienist (executive producer: Rosalie Swedlin, one episode) is based on the 1994 bestselling novel by historian Caleb Carr, and it tells the fictional story of a slew of brutal murders in 1896 Manhattan, setting against the backdrop of real historical figures like Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan. When a series of young male sex workers are killed in the streets, a trio of heroes join forces to crack the grisly case: criminal psychologist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl), newspaper illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans), and NYPD secretary Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning).

The key to the story's odd title lies with the first character on that list, Dr. Kreizler. You see, the word "alienist" used to be used to describe a profession we now refer to by an entirely different name: "psychiatrist." Back then, the term "alienist" didn't have anything to do with our modern conception of interplanetary visitors; rather, it simply shares a root with the Latin word that also gave us "alien."

According to Merriam Webster's definition of "alienist":

Alienist looks and sounds like it should mean "someone who studies aliens," and in fact alienist and alien are related — both are ultimately derived from the Latin word alius, meaning "other." In the case of alienist, the etymological trail leads from Latin to French, where the adjective aliene ("insane") gave rise to the noun alieniste, referring to a doctor who treats the insane. Alienist first appeared in print in English in the 19th century. It was preceded by the other alius descendants, alien (14th century) and alienate (used as a verb since the early 16th century). Alienist is much rarer than psychiatrist these days, but at one time it was the preferred term.

If you're a fan of period mysteries, chances are you might have run across the term at some point in your reading; it has also been used by such famous authors as Agatha Christie (The A.B.C. Murders), Joseph Conrad (Heart Of Darkness), H.P. Lovecraft (The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward), Erik Larson (The Devil In The White City), and Margaret Atwood (Alias Grace, which recently received its own small screen adaptation on Netflix).

While "alienist" used to refer generally to anyone who studied psychiatry, if it's used at all today it's in a much more specific capacity: to refer to psychiatrists who specialize in sanity trials. According to USLegal.com, while "earlier, an alienist meant a doctor specializing in mental illness treatment," today, "an alienist usually analyzes a criminal defendant's capacity to stand trial."

But perhaps the show's own trailer sums it up most succinctly: "In the 19th century, the mentally ill were thought to be alienated from their own nature. Experts who studied them were known as alienists." While the hunt for actual aliens is underway on FOX's The X-Files, the hunt for an old-timey serial killer will get underway on TNT on Jan. 22, for eight limited episodes.