Television dropped two new murder mysteries this week, and both are worthy additions to the decade’s most popular genre worldwide. They’re quite different from each other, with “The Alienist” (9 p.m. Eastern Mondays, TNT) set in 1890s New York City and “Bellevue” (10 p.m. Eastern Tuesdays, WGN) set in present-day rural Ontario, although both have the hook of transgendered people being the victims, and both explore links between old and new cases. Both premiere episodes stand out from their brethren in different ways while conforming to the grim mood we’ve come to expect ever since “The Killing” premiered.
“The Alienist” – adapted from a novel — gives insight into psychiatry at the turn of the 20th century. Psychiatrists were called alienists back then, because they were tasked with driving the “alien” presence out of a patient’s mind. Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl) is progressive for his time: In the series’ backstory, he treated a boy who liked to dress up in his sister’s clothes and told the mother it wasn’t a serious concern. When the siblings end up murdered, the mother blames Laszlo.
The biggest signal that we’re in a different time period, though, is simply that it looks like 1890s NYC, with gaslights and wooden bridges and petticoats and policemen urinating in buckets by their desks. It’s obvious that pennies were not pinched when creating this backlot set, and I don’t mind when the efforts are shown off; a bit of lingering camerawork fits with the old-timey vibe.
So do the characters. “The Alienist” is a three-lead show, as New York Times artist John (Luke Evans) and police secretary Sara (Dakota Fanning, who somehow isn’t 9 anymore) join Laszlo as a makeshift team of unauthorized private investigators. John is a proper gentleman who – despite his job — is horrified by murder scenes; he has a vice of visiting the local brothel, but we know he’s OK because he’s in love with one of the working girls. Sara is woman in a man’s world; the secretary gig isn’t merely a first rung on the ladder, it’s the only rung she can access in those days. When a boy who dresses like a girl – apparently this was a thing at brothels during this time – is found brutally torn apart on a rickety under-construction bridge, the interest of all three is piqued for different reasons.
I’m horrible at correctly guessing the killer in shows like this, but I’m intrigued by the mother of the dead kids so quickly shifting blame to Laszlo, and by the fact that the ex-police chief is played by Ted Levine (“Monk,” “The Bridge”) – a pretty big name for what is so far a small role.
The CBC import “Bellevue” doesn’t have the same time-and-place hook, but it does have an unusual piece of casting that intrigues me (and will perhaps drive off others): Anna Paquin plays the case’s lead police detective, Annie. Not only is the role of a haggard small-town detective against type for the “X-Men” and “True Blood” star, but it’s also a stretch that such a young person is so established in that job. Furthermore, while Paquin is 35, we’re told Annie is 28, something that underscores the craziness of her having a 12-year-old daughter, Daisy (Madison Ferguson).
The warm but obviously imperfect relationship between Annie and Daisy’s dad is part of the show’s appeal; at one point the three of them banter in a closet while the mom and dad pass a bottle back and forth. Throw in the fact that the mother of the missing cross-dressing boy, Jesse, is tight-lipped about helping Annie’s investigation, and “Bellevue” has the makings of an unusual but believable cast of characters. That’s what a good small-town murder-mystery needs, as it gives us permission to play the fun game of “guess the killer” (even though I always guess wrong).
Another layer of intrigue comes from Annie receiving riddle-laden messages, identical to the notes left for her when she was a teen and one of her classmates, Sandy Driver, disappeared. That case was probed by her dad – whose career footsteps Annie is following – and we’re told the case “broke him” and he was killed in the course of the investigation.
Both “Bellevue” and “The Alienist” do an admirable job of parsing out just enough information to keep me wanting more. “The Alienist” is the much more slick, prestigious and critic-baiting show, but despite its unusual setting and investigative team, I find the specific scenes (brushes with officialdom, crime scenes, autopsies) quite familiar. “Bellevue’s” investigation is based at your run-of-the-mill police station, and Annie’s family troubles and propensity to reach for the bottle are familiar tropes, but Paquin is such an unusual casting choice that it works. As such, the show is just far enough off the beaten path to be rather charming.