This past week I finished the new Netflix original series, “Mindhunter.” The series is based on a semi-autobiographical book written by John Douglas, who used to work for the FBI and now writes books about his experiences in it. I was originally attracted to the show because I saw that one of my favorite directors, David Fincher, was directing four of the 10 episodes. The series is very similar to Fincher’s 2007 movie “Zodiac,” which details the search for the infamous serial killer. “Mindhunter” is fictional, but does feature portrayals of some real-life serial killers like Edmund Kemper and Richard Speck.
The show mainly follows two FBI agents in the behavioral science department who are researching a new breed of murder cases that are emerging in the late 1970s. They are shown handling abnormal criminal cases across the country and interviewing known serial killers. At the same time, they are building a new department within the FBI based around their findings in the field.
The younger of these is the ambitious Holden Ford, played by Jonathan Groff (“Frozen,” “Hamilton,” “Glee”). Beside him is the veteran agent Bill Tench, played by Holt McCallany (“Law and Order,” “Blue Bloods,” “Sully”). Despite getting good work done together, Holden and Bill disagree at several points on how they should handle the cases before them. Holden’s ambition and curiosity clashes with Bill’s more traditional methods, not so much that they are unable to work together, but enough that it creates constant tension and debate between the two. This is amplified as their team expands and welcomes new members, namely Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), who brings a more academic perspective to the team.
There are a fair amount of obscene types of criminal violence that is dealt with throughout. While this violence is addressed almost exclusively through dialogue and autopsy pictures that are only briefly seen by the audience, its intensity is not lost on the characters and likely has at least some impression on the audience. There is almost no actual violence or crime shown on screen, which makes the show a bit less exciting to watch but allows it to focus on more interesting and psychological aspects of crime.
Where I think the show really does a good job is paralleling Holden’s personal life with the things he is encountering in his work. The criminals that he interviews talk about the grotesquely twisted sexual desires that drove them to commit their murders, as well as how they were treated by women throughout their lives.
Throughout the series, Holden is in the early stages of an intimate relationship with a woman a few years younger than himself. This relationship is thrown into a different light for him, and probably the audience, as he is forced to compare it with the sex-related crimes that he is working with every day. Bill’s relationship with his family is dealt in this way a little as well, and both parallels bring the show a little closer to home for the average viewer.
It also does a very good job in how it deals with the criminals. In terms of the audience’s experience, there is always an underlying tension during interviews with characters who are imprisoned serial killers or murder suspects. In all of the interview scenes, I was constantly wondering if something Holden or Bill said might cause the person being interviewed to snap. Each of these scenes is engaging to watch and it’s very difficult to get bored or distracted during them.
However, it also puts a new spin on how killers and murder cases are dealt with by law enforcement. This is not done in a way that pertains to any of the violent crimes or police brutalities that are featured in the news today. Rather, it shows criminals who are motivated to kill not by their mental instabilities that they are often not even aware of, but instead by a traditional external event in their lives. I think this is really good, because it defies the stereotype that such people are deranged and easily identified. Certainly none of the killers are exactly normal, but they are the sorts of people that viewers might encounter in their daily lives.
It is not a terribly entertaining show, but I would still recommend looking into it. There are not many major character conflicts or plot twists as with something like “House of Cards” or “Breaking Bad.” In an odd way, its allure comes from the subject matter, which allows the audience to share the characters’ curiosity. It probably won’t generate a major fan base, but it still provides the audience with an engaging subject matter.
I don’t watch any crime shows aside from BBC’s “Sherlock,” but I have heard that “Mindhunter” transcends a lot of traditional procedural cop shows like “Law and Order.” I’m not sure who I would recommend this to, but the show does get slightly better as it goes on. If you don’t find anything about it particularly appealing after the first two or three episodes, it’s probably not worth sticking it out. It’s by no means my new favorite show, but I am interested to see what it has in store for any seasons to follow.