Thursday's best TV: The Alienist, Deep Safe and Madam Secretary

Alistair McKay
Gang of three: Dakota Fanning, Daniel Brũhl and Luke Evans in The Alienist: Kurt Iswarienko / Netflix

There are no aliens in The Alienist. Not yet, anyway. This is a period piece, with the action taking place in 1896 in a very mannered New York City, so the little green men have yet to be invented.

There are hats, though, and bonnets and horses. It is very dark. Possibly you will need to buy a new television in order to distinguish the details from the murk. Possibly you will not want to, for the details are gory and Gothic. These are grim times. There are moustaches and a widespread suspicion of science, so the dialogue is like an argument in which the clever people talk proper period prose while the simple Oirish coppers grunt like oiks.

But forget the mood. You will be wantin’ the facts, ma’am. The facts are: “something bad” has happened under the bridge. There is a body there in the snow. It is the body of a child. And there’s something odd about it. It is a boy dressed as a girl. “Why was he wearing a dress?” somebody asks. “The dead kid was dressed like a girl. Somebody cut him to pieces.”

At this point, the doctor — the alienist — issues an urgent command. “Ready the calash!” he says, which is what people used to say when they were in a hurry in 1896.

Star: Dakota Fanning in The Alienist (Katalin Vermes)

So, yes. Alienists, it says here, were experts in the study of people with mental illness, which is why the doctor, Lazlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl), is in such a rush to get the details. But, this being a horse-powered CSI, he needs help, so he sends a newspaper illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans) to capture the scene. And it is horrible. The child has no eyes. “Twas birds got ’em,” says an unscientific person. “Or rats.”

Here, the camera does a very modern thing. It peers right into the empty sockets while someone muses in a horrified fashion: “What kind of dog could do such a thing?”

There is a suspect, of course. A mad lad. He is inside Bellevue, the asylum, banging his napper against a wall. Dr Kreizler goes inside to meet him, which is brave considering he’s never seen The Silence of the Lambs, and determines that the poxy headbanger is innocent of the ritualistic dog-like murder of the child despite his syphilitic complexion. The corpse, we now know, was a boy prostitute (hence the dress).

There’s a woman too, thank goodness, because it’s the law. She is Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), an inquisitive secretary in the police department, and she gets the best lines. “”I’m not here on savoury business,” she says, unflappably. “And every panderer, mark, lush and billy noodle in this city pass through the doors of the police department, not to mention the mutton shunters that I work with, so please don’t concern yourself with my blushes.”

Meanwhile, in the thriller Deep State, there are a couple of surprising musical references. The title sequence reworks the lyrics of the Talking Heads song Once in a Lifetime to sound like a political speech. And later, an underground operative tries to menace a backstreet fixer in Beirut with a Biblical line from the song The Man Comes Around. “Why should I trust you, Johnny Cash?” the man replies, displaying surprising familiarity with The Man in Black’s late catalogue.


Pick of the day

Madam Secretary - Sky Living, 9pm

In recent weeks, this US political drama about the travails of the tough, glamorous Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni) has been schooling viewers in the intricacies of the 25th amendment, which allows for the replacement of a president when he is incapacitated.

The show aired in the US in January, when discussion of Michael Wolff’s book about President Trump was still fresh, but Keith Carradine, who plays the entirely fictional Commander in Chief, President Dalton, put that down to coincidence, saying the drama was “aspirational”.

State affairs: McCord faces a dilemma (Sky)

The fictional president seems to have tiptoed back from the brink, having narrowly avoided an accidental war, and is said to be “firing on all ganglia”, though he is still harbouring doubts about his ability to cope with the demands of the job.

McCord has her own dilemma: she is torn about presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the new president of Myanmar, who is persecuting minority groups. And there’s trouble on the home front too, as husband Henry’s sister visits, bringing an old family grievance with her.

Screen time

Civilisations - BBC2, 9pm

The second film by “historian of empire” David Olusoga takes an expansive look at the art produced between the industrial revolution and the First World War, a period in which the ideas of the Enlightenment were forcibly exported, and then challenged by Europe’s descent into bloodshed.

Paul Gauguin is at the centre of the argument: when he went to Tahiti in 1891 he didn’t find paradise, says Olusoga, but devastation — “a classic case of what European civilisation could do to other societies.”

Picasso, notes the presenter, was influenced by so-called primitive art, and the idea of progress itself was challenged by war, where Otto Dix found himself in the trenches holding “the literal fusion of the gun and the machine”.

London Go - Tomorrow, 7pm

As this week’s episode features a guest who has directed a dance routine in Antarctica for a film, we are legally obliged to say there is snow business like showbusiness.

Host Luke Blackall will meet Corey Baker to discuss Antarctica: The First Dance, which receives a world premiere at Somerset House on Earth Day (April 22).

The House of Mirth - London Live, 7pm

The House of Mirth is not located on the same street, or even the same postcode, as Madness’s House of Fun; mirth is to be found buried within the darkest irony of Edith Wharton’s tale of social downgrading.

Gillian Anderson is luminescent as Lily Bart, a fin-de-siècle socialite who has (remarkably) managed to remain unmarried, a status which threatens her upper-crust credentials as she nears old age. Which self-respecting gent would marry a woman past 30?

Lily has options but none is the Goldilocks sweet spot: Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz) is her love yet isn’t wealthy enough, Simon Rosedale (Anthony LaPaglia) is loaded and awful, while Percy Gryce (Pearce Quigley) has as much money as he has little personality.

Deep Dish

Monty Python’s Flying Circus - Netflix

The BBC sat on its Python archive for years but Netflix has now curated a whole load of completely different somethings, including the films Life of Brian and Monty Python and The Holy Grail, plus live films, documentaries and the original 1969 series which launched this surreal nonsense on an unsuspecting world, Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

iPlayer: Boy George and Culture Club: From Karma to Calamity is avaliable now (Mark Metcalfe/Getty)

Catch Up

Boy George and Culture Club: From Karma to Calamity - BBC iPlayer

Boy George was Arcade Fire’s guest at their Wembley show last week, playing Karma Chameleon. This documentary about the 2014 revival of his band Culture Club offers an amiable, self-mocking view of his recent career. It starts at the Q Awards, where George suggests his “Idol” award is for “doing nothing for the last 20 years”.