Mild spoilers below for anyone who hasn't yet watched the two-episode premiere of TNT's The Alienist: Angel of Darkness.
For fans of dark and grisly dramas, The Alienist: Angel of Darkness has arrived with a season-long arc centered around dead babies, kidnapped babies, and the trio of investigators (played by Dakota Fanning, Luke Evans and Daniel Brühl) most inclined to solve the crime and deliver justice. Like its 2018 predecessor, the second season of TNT's semi-anthological thriller is based on the historical fiction novel written by Caleb Carr, with some changes being made in the adaptation process. CinemaBlend spoke with showrunner Stuart Carolan about such changes, including the return of a TV character who wasn't in the book sequel.
An Irish playwright and writer arguably best known for the award-winning crime drama Love/Hate, Stuart Carolan took over showrunner duties for The Alienist: Angel of Darkness. In doing so, he chose not to remain 100% faithful to the fictionalized source material, but in a way that was still somewhat faithful to real-world history. During our chat, I asked him about making alterations from Caleb Carr's novel, and Carolan talked very specifically about bringing Monk vet Ted Levine's Season 1 character Thomas Byrnes back for the show, even though his arc did not get continued on the page. Here's how his explanation started:
What the viewers know now is [TNT's] The Alienist, and so when when they think of Sarah Howard, they see Dakota, and [for] Laszlo Kreitzler, they think of Daniel Brühl. For John Moore, it's Luke Evans. So you have to think in terms of it's a follow-on from the TV series, and then there are other elements in it. Sometimes it's simple, it's just certain things. It's difficult sometimes, but you have to approach it in a kind of a ruthless manner, to be honest. You just have to realize that for any adaptation, it's a new thing, and that it automatically changes and you can't worry about it too much. A good example would be the character of Thomas Byrnes. So, Thomas Byrnes features in The Alienist, but he doesn't feature in [the novel] Angel of Darkness. He's going to [on TV] because it's Ted Levine, and so we have to have Thomas Byrnes in it, because, you know, he's part of the show, and it's Ted.
So first and foremost, The Alienist: Angel of Darkness welcomed Ted Levine's Thomas Byrnes back because TV viewers tend to have certain expectations when it comes to already established characters. (And in Levine's case, his fully established mustache.) While this second season could have feasibly brought in a new character to serve as the NYPD's main investigator, that wouldn't have been the most ideal route. Because in the second place, no one should ever squander Levine's presence in any project unless absolutely necessary. The actor is tailor-made for roles like this, after all.
Having also said that The Alienist: Angel of Darkness novel was packed with details that could fill 100 hours of TV, Stuart Carolan talked about how bringing Ted Levine back for the second season meant taking into account multiple iterations of Thomas Byrnes. In his words:
So there is the character from the book, and then there is the character that this was based on, and the only one that really matters now is the character that Ted Levine created. So it's trying to put all of those things in this one character. So with that, you go back to the book, you look at the character in The Alienist. You talk to Ted to see what he thinks about his character. And in the case of Thomas Byrnes, what's fascinating is, there's so much raw material. He is a fascinating historical figure. He wrote an autobiography, he came up with the original rogues gallery of criminals, you know, the mugshots. He was this larger-than-life character. He's also Irish. So I felt that – I talked to Ted about this as well – I felt that he's a fictional creation and he's Ted's creation, and he's a Caleb Carr creation, but you also feel that you need to honor the real-life guy, so you want to go back. And what was interesting about looking into back into the research is that he's a complex figure.
Thomas Byrnes comes off as more of a straightforward obstacle for Sarah, John and Laszlo in the earliest episodes of The Alienist: Angel of Darkness. Granted, 80% of the characters in this show stand in direct opposition to Dakota Fanning's female detective, Luke Evans' news-making journalist, and Daniel Brühl's psychological-minded alienist. It remains to be seen whether or not Ted Levine's authority figure will change his tune, though it doesn't seem likely at this point.
To that end, Stuart Carolan started talking about Thomas Byrnes as both a celebrated and notorious historical figure who quickly rose through the ranks of the NYPD after his Irish family fled to the United States in the midst of the famine. In the showrunner's words:
He was a bully-boy, for sure. The expression 'the third degree' came from him in terms of like beating up prisoners; so there was violence, there was bullying. He was a self-promoter. He was involved in shady deals with the wealthy You know, there was a commission where he was asked to testify. But equally, it's fascinating because I remember reading that when he was 21 years old...he was asked to police the draft riots, and he was kind of a hero at that time. In the draft riots, there were a lot of African Americans that were attacked. There was this orphanage of young black children that was attacked by these rioters, and the real Thomas Byrnes kind of stood up to the mob and leveled his gun at them. You know, he's only 21, and he led [the children] to safety. So, when you're reading this stuff, it's quite thrilling. You can have such a vivid sense of this man.
Obviously The Alienist: Angel of Darkness isn't able to fully dig into the lengthy and extremely insightful backstory for Ted Levine's Thomas Byrnes, no matter how interested its showrunner was by the historical research. (Though by all means, Byrnes seems ripe for his own biopic or limited series, especially with Levine involved.)
In any case, Stuart Carolan talked more about trying to keep Ted Levine's version of Thomas Byrnes as fully realized as possible within the context of The Alienist: Angel of Darkness, so that he won't just be seen by viewers as a stereotype, nor as a shitty detective. Here, Carolan wraps up his thoughts on Levine and Byrnes:
His father was a drunk, he looked up to his mother. He was self-educated; a local priest took an interest in him and give him books. So you think about this man whose family left Ireland at the height of a famine, and you think about the kind of poverty and destitution, and so yes, he was a bully-boy. Yes, he ended up being corrupt, but he's also brave, so that's the kind of elements you think about. And then in Ted, you've got this sensational actor, so what you want to do there is give it a little bit of depth. You don't want to make him two-dimensional. You don't want to just feel that his only function is to be a kind of fly in the ointment. And obviously, there's a kind of plot function where he seeks to go against Sarah, Lazlo and John Moore. We just wanted to give him a little bit of depth. . . . And all the way through, what you're trying to remember is, you know, this man Caleb Carr sat down for a certain amount of years reading, researching, and coming up with these characters and creating this world. So you really want to keep that in mind and keep him as your kind of emotional North Star, you know?
Thomas Byrnes definitely isn't the only real-world figure that viewers see in The Alienist: Angel of Darkness, with The Flash and Narcos vet Matt Letscher portraying newspaper publisher and politician William Randolph Hearst, and even that's not all. But you'll just have to keep watching to see who else shows up.
Stay tuned to CinemaBlend for more from our interview with Stuart Carolan, and tune into The Alienist: Angel of Darkness episodes on TNT on Sunday nights at 9:00 p.m. ET. To see what other shows, both dark and otherwise, will be hitting the small screen in the coming months, head to our Summer 2020 TV schedule and our Fall 2020 premiere guide.