Inside “The Alienist” with director Jakob Verbruggen

On January 22, TNT presents “The Alienist,” an unflinching psychological thriller set amidst the underbelly of New York City’s “Gilded Age.” It follows a brilliant and obsessive Alienist in the controversial new field of treating mental pathologies, who holds the key to hunting down a ritualistic killer murdering young boys. “The Alienist” is a gripping, turn-of-the-century murder mystery like none other: the story of the emergence of the world’s most powerful city that will stop at nothing to bury its darkest secrets.

Jakob Verbruggen wears many hats within the show, serving as showrunner, executive producer and director. We got to sit down with Jakob and get an inside look at how this enormous project came together.

“The Alienist” looks amazing, and very intense, too. What was it about the book that made such a compelling television series?
I think there’s several answers to this question. I think the first answer is, the opportunity to re-create New York City at the turn of the century, during the Gilded Age. Being able to create a “city symphony” that gives the audience a unique insight into everyday life was a big challenge, but also an interesting one for me as a director.

What makes this series stand out also is that the characters who set out to capture this evil are unlikely heroes. They are loners and outsiders with no real experience - they are Alienists. One is the first woman working for the New York Police Department, and another is simply a romantic underachiever – I mean, what’s going on?

It’s through the eyes of these characters that we witness the birth of forensics and profiling. Everything is new to them, they are literally inventing it all in front of our eyes. And them having to confront their inner demons in order to be able to understand evil, I think is fascinating.

Whenever a show is adapted from a book, it seems there is always that argument over whether it should remain true to the book, or veer off on its own path. Which camp is “The Alienist” in?
I think we stay truthful to the book. The only issue we were facing is that the book is told from Moore’s point of view. It’s Moore’s character who is observing whatever is happening. In the book, his character didn’t have much of a body and didn’t really have much to do, because he was the eyes and ears of the audience. So, in order to create this more solid and literal character, we had to create a world for Moore. We had to give him a grandmother, learn about his ex-fiancé. We had to create more depth for Moore’s character.

Tell us how you and your team put this series together.
There was never an easy day on “The Alienist”. If we hit the streets, there was 20-40 horses, carriages, hundreds of extras – it’s a massive undertaking. And at some point, the key to making “The Alienist” was the obsession with detail and for authenticity. Whether it was me, the other directors, our production designer or our costume designer, making sure that everything was right and made sense was crucial.

Did you need to do a lot of research into life in 1896 to get a feel for people’s attitudes during that period?
I think what is really fascinating is that the New York we portray, is not so different from modern days. The idea of trying to keep the status quo, the economic crisis, refugees, immigrants, people looking for a new future in a different country, being accepted or not accepted - it’s all relatable.

There is a potential mirror that this series can hold up to the audience, so hopefully it can create some conversation after the series that the audience can think about.

Imagine a viewer tunes in for “The Alienist” premiere on January 22. What do you hope that viewer will feel or think after seeing it?
I hope, in experiencing the Gilded Age of New York, it’s like a moment of time travelling. We want the audience to get under the skin of these main characters, leaving them with a feeling of, “What’s going to happen now? I want to know more!”

Discover the world of The Alienist at