The landscape of criminal based programs in entertainment today reads like a road trip across all of the United States. Along the way you’ll find some gems like a great pulled pork sandwich or the world’s largest ball of twine but ultimately the drive is filled with hours of bland sameness.
Sameness is the sin that stains the landscape of crime television. There are four NCIS shows, four different CSI cities, and more Law and Order shows than I care to look up. On the film scene, there are countless serial killer/mystery thriller B-movies and we can’t forget the dozens of true crime shows and documentaries. Among these many, many programs I’ve found one that is worthy of your attention, the Netflix original show Mindhunter.
Like a thief in the night Mindhunter dropped on our netflix feeds without warning, no marketing or fanfare. The thumbnail mirrored that of the many crime based shows/movies that are already on Netflix, a grey road covered in fog and mystery. The lead of the show, Jonathan Groff, is well known but not that recognizable. How did I get wind of this show? Word of mouth. The buzz for Mindhunter is quite strong despite its seemingly low profile and weak title. We can undoubtedly thank the crime TV junkies for recognizing good TV when they see it.
In Mindhunter, you follow FBI agents Holden Ford, played by Groff, and Bill Tench, played by Holt McCallany, as they travel across the country teaching local police departments FBI techniques. Along the way, they interview convicted serial killers to gain insight into their behavior. Eventually the pair is joined by psychology professor Wendy Carr, portrayed by Fringe’s Anna Torv, as they work to develop criminal psychology and profiling as we know it. Profiling, a technique often on display in shows like Criminal Minds or Hannibal, is a staple among crime TV. Mindhunter’s interesting premise is what draws viewers in; the quality of its content is what keeps the viewers hooked.
The shows success can be attributed to many things. However, it seems reasonable to look at producer/director David Fincher when examining what makes the show unique. Fincher is the most qualified and experienced person attached to the show and brings a level of intensity to Mindhunter that is absent from many shows of its genre. His fingerprints can be seen throughout the whole series. Those fingerprints can be seen most clearly in the scenes involving Groff’s Agent Ford and Cameron Britton’s breakout performance as the real life Co-Ed Edmund Kemper. There are many similarities in tone to Fincher’s 2007 hit Zodiac. In fact, Mindhunter might be the best piece of serial killer based work since Zodiac. Fincher has directorial credits on the first and last two episodes of the series, meaning the series is bookended by its strongest work.
Some serial killer based shows bombard the audience with cruelty or violence to convey the vitality of the crimes. Mindhunter does not shy away from blood but it does not put it on display. The script and performances are more likely to put a chill down your spine than the visuals. The show is well-acted and the Netflix production values are in full effect. Mindhunter also has a mostly unlikable protagonist in agent Ford. Mindhunter pushes the envelope of grey; no one you come across is a hero and the show does a good job at making the villains charming or empathetic. A tall task when your villain is a mass murderer.
So how does Mindhunter stand out from the pack? The show doesn’t use the tropes and terms behind criminal profiling it brings you through the process of building them. Too often criminal profilers are seen as prophetic geniuses that are being outsmarted by genius criminals. Mindhunter presents you with smart agents actually working through psychological profiles while developing new terminology. The audience is invited to think through the process along with the detectives. Learning as they do. This show is devoid of “lightbulb moments” that plague shows like House or CSI. Visually, Fincher’s camera direction and eye for editing give most episodes a cinematic feel that’s better than anything we’ll get on network television.
Our screens are bombarded with so many mediocre crime dramas and serial killer movies that it takes something truly exceptional to shine through. The first season of True Detective, Fincher’s Zodiac and Seven,and Silence of the Lambs are some of our best examples of killer entertainment. Mindhunter has the potential to join that list.