If you read the description for Mindhunter, you may suspect you’ve seen all of this before. A show about FBI agents profiling serial killers? That could be Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, which in itself took a cue from Chris Carter’s seminal The X-Files and lesser known spin-off gem Millennium – themselves very much inspired by Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels. What angle can Mindhunter take that helps it stand out from an already crowded field? And this isn’t even touching on all the generic network cop, forensic investigation show franchises. Well, firstly, Mindhunter has the virtue of David Fincher on board, one of the greatest filmmakers of his (or any other) generation. The pedigree, on a creative level, is almost peerless. This first episode is off to a huge advantage.
Secondly, it’s taking much more of a cue from the real world, from experience, and from harrowing accounts of true crime. Mindhunter is adapted from ‘Mind Hunter: Inside The FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit’, a book by Mark Olshaker and John E. Douglas, one of the very first profilers who quite literally wrote the book on criminal psychology. Jonathan Groff’s protagonist, FBI agent Holden Ford, is very much based on a young Douglas, while the partner he cultivates by the end, Bill Tench (played by Holt McCallany – is there a more American name than that, by the way?), is based on the legendary Robert Ressler, another profiler credited for inventing the term ‘serial killer’. In other words, Fincher and writer Joe Penhall know their onions.
If you know Fincher, and especially his crime movies, you know how forensic the director is and how much he will have applied that lens to Mindhunter. His 2007 film Zodiac is clearly a major influence; that film had a period setting (the 60’s and 70’s primarily), it was fascinated by the psychology of a killer who remained painfully elusive, and dealt with the psychological fallout on the specialist who sacrificed everything to figure out who the killer was. Mindhunter is similarly fascinated by the same level of psychology, except in this case its all about the process of discovering the application of that psychology, rather than the effect. This first episode not only introduces straight back Holden but very much taps into the conceptual themes and ideas the series will play with.
Namely, that it’s not going to be a cop show about the serial killer cat and mouse. That’s where Mindhunter, on the basis of this opener, appears to differ. It’s not operatic and stylistic like Hannibal, but nor is it powerfully bleak and haunting like Millennium; more, it’s academic, clinical and filled with big ideas. Holden has a visible character arc—promising young agent relegated to teaching after a hostage situation goes wrong, only to find a new lease of life as a teacher—but its wrapped around the questions: why do killers kill? What if they have no discernible motive? What if using conventional methods, be they guns or force or simplistic black and white methods, lead to more lives being lost? In the context of the period setting, it’s a great hook.
Admittedly, some of the dialogue early on is a little ripe, hammering home how it wants to portray a late-1970’s slipping off the back of free love and counter-culture into a darker, mistrusting, paranoid world, post-Watergate, where perhaps these kind of violent, horrific crimes the FBI simply isn’t prepared enough to understand are a causal factor of a broken society. Yet they resonate with the modern day – indeed it’s interesting just how much modern television is using 1970’s America, now held up as a decade where a lot of American ideological dreams started to die, as a mirror for the 2010’s.
Mindhunter is no exception, yet it has aspirations to the deeper and more philosophical; one great moment sees a slightly pompous Holden totally misjudging a briefing about criminal psychology to Iowa cops, not realising these guys just aren’t ready for a world where they may have to consider Charles Manson did what he did because he was abused as a child.
This is where Mindhunter is going, and it’s really interesting. I hope it doesn’t give way and simply become another FBI investigation show because this opener is punching at different levels, tapping into new approaches around a well-explored area of fiction, perhaps intending to fuse true crime with period drama, all shot through with David Fincher’s chilly, distant, meticulous lens. It would do well to stay that way.
Mindhunter is now streaming on Netflix in the UK. Let us know what you think of the season…