Netflix’s Fascinating ‘Mindhunter’ Goes Back To The Start Of Serial Killer Stories

Senior Television Writer
10.17.17 15 Comments

The world needs another TV drama about serial killers, and the cops who hunt them, like I need a hole in my head — the hole being put there by a deviant unsub whose pathology dictated that he use a drill to work through his feelings about… well, you get the idea.

It’s not just that the business is obsessed with serial killers, but that it’s obsessed in one particular way, fetishizing these monsters and their methods — and how the only way the law can catch them is to learn to think like them — until the unifying, slobbering message winds up being Awesome Serial Killers Are Awesome. There’s so much metric tonnage of this approach that even if you’ve never seen an episode of Criminal Minds, you could probably recite the terminology of its profilers right before they use it.

Sometimes, a serial killer drama is executed at such a high level that the rote fetish stuff is less bothersome, like the early years of Dexter or the later years of Bates Motel. And every now and then, a creator like Bryan Fuller comes along and turns the Hannibal Lecter story into a fever dream mix of lust, science fiction, opera, and modern art so that even the most deified screen serial killer of them all feels like an untapped resource. But too often, the ground is so well-trod it’s best to avoid altogether. (Amazon’s Bosch not coincidentally took a huge leap forward in quality after its serial killer-focused first season.)

Netflix’s Mindhunter finds a different path around the cliches, by showing how they were created in the first place. The drama, which debuted last week(*), begins in the late ’70s, when spree killers like Son of Sam had begun to render the concept of motive — long the most crucial element to closing a homicide investigation — besides the point. How, wonder FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), can this new breed of murderer be captured when they have no connection to their victims and are driven by horrifying, alien urges?

(*) Netflix did not make screeners of this available in advance to most critics, myself included. Usually, this is a sign of an incoming stinkbomb, but in this case, it seems to be Netflix being weirdly conservative about one of its better new series of the year. Whatever the reason, I have watched all 10 episodes of the first season.

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