TV: Mindhunter (Seasons 1 & 2)

There was a part of me that resisted liking Mindhunter, or perhaps several parts. One part didn’t want to perpetuate the entertainment world’s problematic fascination with serial killers; a second is still reconsidering my life choices after bothering to finish Dexter; a third continues to wrestle, especially in light of current events, with the jarring disconnect between heroic TV cops and sinister, actual ones. Holding all these caveats and reservations, Mindhunter still managed to win me over, a lavish, absorbing period slow burn that will likely appeal to fans of mystery procedurals and tales of true crime.

Based on the nonfiction book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Mindhunter chronicles the founding of the FBI’s behavioral sciences unit, a department dedicated to studying the methods and mindsets of violent crime’s most egregious repeat offenders. One of the primary movers of this new department is Special Agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), a former hostage negotiator who reluctantly accepts an assignment teaching recruits at Quantico. There he meets Special Agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), who shares his interest in understanding the psychology of criminals. Tench teaches “road school,” traveling to police departments across the country to train FBI methods to local law enforcement. He enlists Holden’s aid, and together they combine their road trips with a radical new initiative to interview imprisoned serial killers. The hope is that by understanding the psychology of the killers, they can apply new profiling techniques to help solve active murder cases. They enlist the consultation of a Boston psychology professor, Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), who brings the needed subject matter expertise to their work, and together the three of them work to build up this new department.

Taking place in the late seventies and early eighties, Mindhunter is an expensive-looking production effectively recapturing the aesthetics and sociopolitical dynamics of the time period. While over the years I’ve developed a taste of mystery fiction, I have no special fascination with the criminal behaviors that so fascinate the unit. Season one nonetheless gradually captured my allegiance, primarily due to one actor: Cameron Britton, who portrays the looming, gregarious Ed Kemper, the team’s first interview subject. Britton brings the requisite gravitas and mystique to an unforgettable role as his character provides the early insights that validate the team’s working concept. I’m also kind of a sucker for team origin stories, and Mindhunter delivers a compelling version of this, as the core group gradually transforms its dingy sub-basement store room into a bustling, respected division of the Bureau. Their efforts are met with constant bureaucratic roadblocks, which anyone with the experience of corporate red tape will find relatable, and lends verisimilitude to the patient, slow-building history of the unit. Fortunately, the frustrations of the work are punctuated with moments of chilling suspense as their work places them in the vicinity of frightening criminals and dangerous situations.

The principle performers—Groff, McCallany, and Torv—comprise another core strength of the show. Although the characters aren’t particularly unique, they’re all well constructed in relationship to the subject matter. They’re a team dedicated to uncovering the psychology of violent criminals, but their own psychologies remain mysterious to them, and true to the stultifying standards of the era. Groff is a tough nut to crack on this score; his performance as Ford is initially a little off-putting, but as his stiff, Boy Scout conformity is challenged by the sick minds he investigates, he starts to relate more and more to his subjects—perhaps a little too comfortably. It’s an unsettling transformation, and one that causes strain in his relationship with Debbie Mitford (Hannah Gross), a feisty sociology student who stretches Ford’s self-awareness. (Gross is under-utilized, unfortunately; she brings real spark to her role.) Tench is a more conventional law enforcement character: a family man, a member of the old boys’ network, not particular self-aware in his reinforcement of the patriarchy that shapes him. But McCallany brings an effortless accessibility to the role. One of the main reasons I started Mindhunter was my admiration for Anna Torv, a performer I find instantly credible, especially in roles of authority or expertise. Dr. Carr, a closeted lesbian and career academic who takes a professional gamble to join the team, isn’t afforded the same meaty screen time as the agents, unfortunately. But Torv is extremely well suited to the material she’s given: struggling with her buttoned-down, intellectual personality in her romantic relationships, coping with sexism in the male-dominated FBI, and concealing her sexual orientation in a homophobic working environment.

Evidently, Mindhunter is on indefinite hold at the moment as David Fincher—who developed the show and directed several episodes—works on film projects. Since season two certainly leaves plenty of room, I’m hopeful it will some day continue, and bring the series to some kind of closure. It’s not the most outstanding crime series I’ve ever watched, but it’s an immersive and effective one that fills its niche quite well.


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