Let’s get this out of the way. The Alienist (2018), a new series set in 1890s New York, has some snarkworthy corset-chafing scenes in the first episode. So much so that the Internet practically lit up, calling out for Frock Flicks the minute the show hit TBS on basic cable here in the states, with people messaging and tagging us on social media, saying “OMG DID YOU SEE THAT?!?!”
We actually hadn’t seen it at the time because none of us tends to watch live TV as it happens (I’m the only one who actually has terrestrial TV, and I still TiVo everything; the other two only have streaming shows). But, as a rule, yes, we are aware of upcoming TV shows and movies — y’all might have noticed that The Alienist had been on our Upcoming Movies list for months (it’s not there now because we only list things until their premiere dates). We would get around to it when our schedules allowed, don’t you worry.
OK, I now have watched the first few episodes of The Alienist, and I’m totally underwhelmed. As a show, anyway. It’s doing that ‘gritty historical’ thing which is trendy these days, a la Peaky Blinders and Taboo. It’s obviously a reaction against ‘overly pretty’ historical dramas, and it’s probably going for a male audience. Fine, whatever. Much as a planned ITV remake of Pride and Prejudice aims “to tease out the story’s ‘darker tones” and make it less “bonnet-y than people assume,” looking at historical serial killers seems to be a popular way to make costume dramas seem like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos. MEH, I say.
Let’s focus on the snark then, shall we?
The first corset-chafing is at a house of ill repute, where newspaper illustrator John Moore is getting his rocks off. I was willing to excuse this one with low-level snark, thinking it was just an unnamed-character prostitue and her lack of chemise was done to play into 21st-century ideas of what was sexy. It’s wrong, it’s dumb, but it happens all the time, and I’d usually just file it away for a basic Snark Week meme.
Later in the episode is when we get into real WTFrock territory. Dakota Fanning’s character, Sara Howard, has been introduced as the first woman ever working at the New York City police department. Her job appears to be secretary to the police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt. She’s kind of obnoxious about her trail-blazing role in a very modern fashion, making waves with the men of the department and anyone else around, saying things like, ‘oh, do you want me to use my feminine wiles to get that done?’ It strikes me as anachronistic feminism instead of historical feminism, which we’ve ranted about endlessly.
Likewise, this bad costume episode is also a bit of anachronistic BS to emphasize “it was so horrible back then, let’s pat ourselves on the back about how much better it is today for the ladies, right???” Especially since it’s prefaced with this conversation…
We follow Sara (Miss Howard, if you’re nasty) back home, where she has a solitary dinner, and then her maid helps her undress, saying:
Sara: I can’t decide whether they abhor our shape or crave another.
Maid: They believe us to be delicate creatures, miss.
Sara: Then to hell with them.
OH FFS. Who’s writing this crap? Is it from the novel the TV show is based on? Because it’s as clunky and pandering as these visuals.
This scene unnecessarily reinforces the trope of corsets as torture devices, with an added layer of misogyny. Which is entirely reductive and modern. You can have a woman of the 1890s who is defying the constrictions of her time without her a) spouting a bunch of cliches from a 1970s women’s lib poster and b) whining about historical clothing that’s she’s wearing incorrectly. Can’t we do better?
The rest of The Alienist does have better costumes, at least, if it the dialog isn’t stellar. The plot follows criminal psychologist, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (the eponymous alienist) and his team as they try to figure out who killed a number of boy prostitutes. It’s based on a novel of the same name. No word yet if it will be renewed for a second season. If you’re into historical serial killers, maybe this is for you, if the random modernisms don’t bug you as much as they bug me.
Are you watching The Alienist?