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.
Playwright Joe Penhall adapted the series from the non-fiction book co-authored by John E. Douglas, the FBI legend who helped invent the modern version of criminal profiling. Ford and Tench are fictionalized versions of Douglas and his partner Robert Ressler — the better to give Penhall and his writers dramatic license to show how the work might impact each man’s personal life — though most of the criminals and cases they investigate are sadly, disgustingly real. Their partnership is presented as a cross between The X-Files and Masters of Sex, as the two men — Ford an intense believer in applying psychological theory to criminal work, Tench a weary veteran who knows Ford is onto something but is skeptical of how much his young partner invests himself in each case — travel the country interviewing convicted “sequence killers” (“serial killer” wasn’t in use yet) about what drove them to kill, and are banished to a basement office by bosses who find their work depraved and beneath the Bureau’s dignity. In time, they’re joined by academic Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv, who has plenty of experience in the FBI world from her days on Fringe) who keeps pushing the research forward even as she’s trying to pull Ford and Tench back from day-to-day casework that gets in the way of perfecting this new science.
David Fincher directed the four episodes that bookend the season, and the show is much more in the vein of his Zodiac than Seven. Though Ford and Tench in their travels occasionally get involved in active investigations, the focus is primarily on trying to make sense of long-ago atrocities committed by men like Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton, electrifying in the way he uses his tremendous size to both intimidate and reassure the feds), who abused the decapitated corpses of his victims.
After a draggy first episode designed to set up Ford as a Bureau iconoclast and introduce his relationship with sociology PhD candidate Debbie (Hannah Gross), Mindhunter quickly finds itself in the long, unsettling conversations between Ford and the gigantic Kemper, who couldn’t be more open or matter-of-fact about what he did and why. He’s not glamorized, nor are any of the killers whom Ford and Tench interview (or, in a few cases, catch) over the course of the season. They did what they did because they were compelled to, sometimes for reasons they can articulate (or that some combo of the agents and Dr. Carr can decipher), at other times for reasons that remain maddeningly out of reach. Ford raises the ire of other law-enforcement officers when he seems to be empathizing too much with the killers, where Tench is able to draw a line of feigning sympathy, past which he will not go, but both wind up learning much more than they expected — or, in Tench’s case, wanted — when they first began down this path. In a later episode, another agent applies to join the study, but his religious convictions — specifically his black-and-white morality and quickness to apply a blanket definition of evil to all these cases — are viewed as a negative by his potential new partners.
By starting at this moment in true crime history when all these ideas were new and baffling and scary, and by making the study the storytelling engine — it’s a crime procedural where the invention of the procedure itself is the whole point — Mindhunter is able to blow the dust off of many of the genre’s oldest and creakiest tropes. Penhall, Fincher, and the rest of the creative team take a dry, no-frills approach to most of the narrative. The overall aesthetic isn’t flashy(*), but that’s the point — this is exhausting, sad work involving both victims and perpetrators who led small lives that have become shockingly big — and the drama is more potent because of how plain-spoken so much of this is. Kemper is presented as a huge fan of cop shows, and this seems like one he would make — though maybe not one he would enjoy actually watching. Even when the soundtrack choices seem like they should be obvious, they’re not; Ford and Debbie have an argument while Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” plays in the background, but the scene cuts away before we hear the famous sax solo.
(*) Every now and then, Fincher can’t resist showing off, like a rapid-fire travel montage in the second episode scored to Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like An Eagle,” which is gorgeous to look at even as it’s conveying the bleak drudgery of Ford and Tench’s life on the road, bouncing from motel to coffee shop to airport and back again.
The personal subplots — Ford and Debbie’s affair is tumultuous, Tench’s son has special needs, Carr is putting her career and relationship in jeopardy by committing to the project — draw the least from the real story, and they lack the specificity of the rest. But all three characters are tremendous showcases for Torv (inserting a lot to read between the lines of Dr. Carr’s reserved presentation), McCallany (genuine and human in what could be the most thankless of the three roles), and, especially, Groff. The real John E. Douglas has inspired so many fictional serial killer hunters (Jack Crawford in the various Hannibal Lecter adaptations, for starters), who have in turn inspired so many more imitators, that there should be no meat left on this particular bone. But Groff plays Ford as the young exposed nerve that he is, never quite fitting in out in the real world — it’s a running gag that nobody believes him when he says he’s from New York — and surprised, afraid, and at times a little excited to realize how easy he finds it to talk to men like Ed Kemper or Richard Speck (Jack Erdie).
Penhall also figures out the kind of basic structure that’s eluded a lot of Netflix drama. It’s not quite Case of the Week, but Ford and Tench get involved in plenty of short-term investigations that both provide practical demonstrations of what they’re learning while keeping each hour feeling relatively distinct and whole. The subject matter is more of a binge stumbling block than the pacing, which is mostly assured once you get past the first hour. One notable exception: many episodes open with brief glimpses of Dennis Rader, the Kansas man who will become known as the BTK Killer. He’ll presumably be Ford and Tench’s target in a second season, but his scenes here play like teases without the substance so much of the rest of Mindhunter has; after a while, I began to wish Netflix had a “Skip BTK” option to go along with “Skip Intro.”
Rader and a few other bumps aside, this is a fascinating, surprisingly restrained debut season. The world may not need another serial killer drama, but this one justifies its existence not only by being so good, but by showing the foundation so many others have been built upon.