Netflix’s ‘Mindhunter’ is a new series created and written by Joe Penhall and executive produced by Charlize Theron and David Fincher, with Fincher directing the first two and the last two installments of this ten-episode season. But did we really need yet another serial killer show? Is there any new angle from which to present this material? As it turns out, the answers to both those questions are a resounding, “Yes.”
This review of this first season almost turned into something quite different. When asked to take a look at this series by Josh, my less-than-enthusiastic reply was that I’d watch the pilot and then decide if I just wanted to recap the entire season or just the first episode. Well, despite being helmed by Fincher, the pilot for ‘Mindhunter’ is a bit of a mess and not at all in tone with the nine episodes that follow. It almost ended for me there, as I really had no desire to watch any more after the first hour. However, seeing so many positive reviews from others about the series, I decided to go ahead and watch one more, and believe me when I say that the difference between Episode 1 and Episode 2 of this series is like night and day. And the good news is that the remaining 8 entries are equally as entertaining.
The series is set in 1977, at the dawn of when the nation’s worst criminals stopped being the typical bank robber types and largely became serial or spree killers. (The series has a lot to say about why things changed at this point in history.) The first episode begins with FBI agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) called to the scene of a hostage situation. The situation escalates to the point where the hostage taker strips naked and then blows his own head off. (It’s the most graphic thing viewers will see in what proves to be a surprisingly non-graphic series.) Back at work, the FBI sees the resolution of the event as a win, since no one but the hostage taker was hurt, but Holden is rattled by the event and becomes more curious about what causes men to commit evil deeds.
When a lecturer comes to Quantico to talk about the psychology behind serial killers’ motives, Holden becomes even more interested in the topic. Later in the pilot, he comes across fellow agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), who has been traveling the country meeting with local law enforcement in various towns and cities to teach them about the methods that the Feds use to catch bad guys. Holden talks his way into getting assigned to join Tench, and it isn’t long before he adds a psychological aspect to the classes they’re teaching.
The first episode does a poor job of trying to set up this premise, and an even worse job of introducing a romantic element into Holden’s life. Holden’s first meeting in a bar with his college-aged girlfriend, Debbie (Hannah Gross), is full of such ridiculously poor dialogue I didn’t buy their relationship for a second. That storyline is one of the weak links of this first season, even including the much stronger episodes that come after the pilot.
Episode 2 really sets up the pattern the rest of the entries will follow. An uneasy (and quite entertaining) partnership develops between the quite green Ford and the much more grizzled and experienced Tench. (McCallany, for my money, gives the best performance of any of the actors in this series.) Not only do the pair continue to visit law enforcement and give classes, but they’re often asked to look at local cases. Additionally, they start visiting and interviewing incarcerated serial killers in prison, starting with Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton). While Ford and Tench are fictionalized characters (although based on real-life FBI agents John Douglas and Robert Ressler, respectively), most of the killers and cases seen in this first season are real, or at least based on real killers and crimes. Ford and Tench interview a number of killers behind bars, and those characters and cases usually cover the span of two or three episodes before the agents move on to their next town/crime/serial killer.
It’s not until Episode 3 that we meet the third main character of this series, Boston psychologist/professor turned FBI employee Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv). She doesn’t join Ford and Tench in the field, but she is responsible for helping get their investigations funded, and is by far the most knowledgeable of the three when it comes to the scientific and psychological aspects of the investigations.
‘Mindhunter’ has already been picked up for a second season, and that knowledge appears to have been part of how these episodes were designed. A handful of them begin with a brief single-scene look at a mustached man in Kansas who seems to be on the verge of taking his first victim. Die-hard serial killer historians will be able to connect the dots and figure out who that notorious figure is. For the rest of us, we’ll need to wait until Season 2 to find out.
Those looking for blood, gore, or even scares won’t find them in ‘Mindhunter’. It’s simply not that kind of show, although that doesn’t mean it can’t be dark and creepy at times. As I noted earlier, it has a lot of things to say about modern society (not just the ’70s, but present day as well) and what may be the cause behind all the evil that men do.
I really struggled on whether to give ‘Mindhunter’ an “A” rating, because I think overall the series is really good. However, I just can’t get past that first hour, which I fear may drive many potential fans away, as it almost did me. You really need to give yourself two hours and watch both of the first two episodes in one sitting. I think most will agree with me that the second episode is what sets the proper tone for this interesting new series.