TV Review: Mindhunter Season 1

The birth of serial killer profiling has a weak start, but is saved by an inexplicable turnaround

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What makes a killer kill? Netflix's new series from David Fincher and creator Joe Penhall about the birth of serial killer profiling, based on the true crime book of the same name, tries to answer that question in a mostly worthwhile trip to the 1970s with one caveat: the pilot is a mess. Tough out the first episode, however, and you'll be rewarded with a gripping look at the real-life psyches of America's most disturbed murderers. Mild spoilers ahead...

Zodiac is one of my favorite films, and one of David Fincher's best directorial efforts. It is a harrowing depiction of a city gripped in fear of a relentless serial murderer, a meticulous procedural masterpiece that marches through the rigamarole of a police manhunt, and most interestingly, what happens when that manhunt fails. It's an incredible story told with a fantastically mature narrative economy, so you can imagine my excitement when Netflix announced Fincher as the Executive Producer of Mindhunter, based on the book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit by renowned profiler John E. Douglas. Douglas was one of the pioneers in criminal psychology, creating profiles and descriptions of perpetrators and their habits, attempting to predict their future behavior. Jonathan Groff (Glee, Spring Awakening) plays a fictionalized version of Douglas named Holden Ford, as he teams up with the surly Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) to break new ground in profiling "sequence killers" (the term "serial killer" having not yet been coined).

Mindhunter is a fantastic show; however, you won't come to that conclusion from its first episode. Slow, meandering, and full of odd plotting, the pilot does nothing to draw you into the world of the show. It takes almost the whole episode for Ford just to meet up with Tench, which would normally be okay, but the way the plot reaches their fateful encounter is tedious and listless - it takes an iron will to not be bored by it. Not only does the pilot episode drag, but it also makes some baffling storytelling decisions. There are some seriously off-balance scenes littered throughout the premiere: a hostage negotiation class led by Ford made to point out racism in the 70s comes across as heavy-handed instead (“for the purpose of this exercise, I’m imagining I’m a Negro” says one student), and a meet-cute between Ford and post-grad sociology major Deborah (Hannah Gross) is pretty much a black hole of chemistry and chock full of awkwardness.

Fortunately, things do improve dramatically past the first episode. Stick with the show, and you'll be rewarded with the meat of the series: Ford and Tench's one-on-ones with their subjects. The introduction of Edmund Kemper in the second episode, a real-life murderer with almost a dozen victims, kicks off proceedings as the duo plumb the so-called Co-ed Killer's psyche for motive and reason. Actor Cameron Britton's excellent turn as Kemper is revelatory and engrossing - his calm, cooperative, and even friendly demeanor contrasts sharply with the heinous crimes he narrates in lurid detail. The series then dives into full procedural mode, as Ford and Tench help police across the country solve crimes with information gleaned from their interviews while continuing their project with the help of Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), introduced in the third episode. Torv, an Australian actress who cut her teeth on shows such as Fringe and HBO's The Pacific, is a great addition to the cast as she gives Carr a rational iciness and academic pragmatism that contrasts nicely with the FBI methodology. Mindhunter's strength lies within its characters, and it's hard not to become invested in the trio as they flail against the bureaucracy and a system that belittles their efficacy: their victories are Pyhrric, and their defeats are raw. Complex and realistic moral quandaries also elevate the show beyond your basic CBS procedural: in a later episode, Ford and Carr argue with a district attorney against the death penalty for a convicted killer, because if word gets out that their interviews are resulting in capital punishment, no other inmates would speak with them again. Do you show a monster leniency in the name of research and nurture a burgeoning field of forensics, or do you rightly expunge a murderer from the gene pool? It's these grey areas that make Mindhunter so fascinating and satisfying to watch. 

However, Mindhunter doesn't suddenly become perfect after the shaky pilot episode. Ford's relationship drama with his girlfriend never graduates past annoying distraction, and an increasing emphasis on bureaucratic red tape detracts from the main attraction of the show's spotlight of deductive work. The series' cold opens and ending scenes could also use a recalibration, as most of them focus on a single man whose story never intersects with the main cast at all, not even once. Audience members who know their history and their serial killers will quickly identify the man as Dennis Rader, the notorious "BTK Killer", but the scenes are an offbeat segue and add nothing to the main narrative.

Mindhunter is one of Netflix's most compelling shows despite a strained start and some minor missteps. It knows the narrative it’s pursuing, and it uses a fantastic cast to convey a great detective story with some real-life history mixed in. I'm genuinely intrigued by the show's willingness to explore the dark spaces of the human psyche, and hopefully its sophomore season can continue the upwards trajectory established in the first ten episodes.

Bullet Points

  • For a show about serial killers and grisly murders, there's surprisingly little blood and gore in Mindhunter. Many prestige shows love to shock with gruesome and over-the-top imagery, but this is not one of those shows. It's all tastefully done and for the better, in my opinion, as there are plenty of long verbal descriptions of the sick and depraved acts, and whatever the audience's imaginations can conjure up will always surpass reality.

  • I also particularly liked the show's depiction of a gay relationship in the 70s. Episode six reveals that Dr. Wendy Carr is a lesbian, and Anna Torv sells the hell out of how precarious her position is at the FBI because of her sexuality. Her fight with her partner (Lena Olin, great in her limited screen time) about leaving academia for the FBI is also grounded in realism, and the internal strife it causes her is palpable in her performance. A stint at Quantico would free her professionally and would allow her to pursue her dream, but she also knows that the toxic patriarchy of the FBI would force her into hiding the person she really is. 

GRADE: B+