Overview: FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) interview imprisoned serial killers to help ongoing investigations. Netflix; TV-MA; 10 episodes.
Worth the Wait: It’s been a long wait for Mindhunter. Since the project was first announced, hopes were high for a David Fincher-directed drama with Charlize Theron attached as an Executive Producer and there were countless of us counting down the days to the show’s October 13th debut on Netflix. Yet fans have nothing on the pair themselves, who first pitched the project back in 2009. But good things take time, and Mindhunter is very good. I watched the first two episodes for this review and despite spending most of the day away from home, I found the topics the characters discussed lingered in my mind. They even came up at lunch—and not in the way you might discuss a TV show; I didn’t want to talk about the show itself, but the subjects it raised, almost like remembering a deeply engaging conversation with a friend. There was strangely no fourth wall there in my memory. I can’t think of higher praise for a recent show than that. Its creators have plenty of material to mine, as most of its main characters are based on real-world inspirations; The characters Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (a charmingly acerbic Holt McCallany) are based on FBI profilers Robert Ressler and John Douglas. Later episodes will feature Anna Torv as Dr. Wendy Carr, who in turn is based on pioneering victim advocate Dr. Ann Wolbert Burgess. Ressler and Douglas essentially invented the modern practice of profiling and it’s exciting to watch concepts we now take for granted as criminality gospel, being spun and debated by the pair.
Whip-Smart Dialogue: Maybe because the contemplation of human behavior is at the show’s root, one could argue there’s a built-in effortlessness to the conversations the characters have. After all, with subjects as interesting as serial killers (at this point, the term hadn’t even yet been coined; Ford references a murderer who killed merely as having acted “in a sequence”) and the inner-workings of the FBI, that the show’s writers had it easy. But I’d argue that’s unfair. For one, to compare this show to something like the standard network TV profiling fare is a bit like comparing a meal at McDonald’s to one at The French Laundry. They both get the job done, but one leaves you feeling a little queasy. The show’s writers—including creator Joe Penhall (The Road)—go above and beyond. The discussions dig deep, and Ford is wisely always paired with a foil, typically partner Bill Tench, or girlfriend, Debbie (Hannah Gross, who gives me major Brie Larson vibes and that’s a huge compliment). Sometimes, Ford is even paired with a murderer, as is the case in the second episode, when he makes multiple visits to Ed Kemper, known as the “Co-Ed Killer.” To his initial bewilderment, Kemper (a real figure, still living and a model prisoner in California) is courteous, thoughtful, and cooperative. The two engage in a deep dive into abnormal psych that wouldn’t be out of place in a college textbook. Despite that—likely because of that—the dialogue is incisive and thought-provoking. I can’t picture David Caruso idly speculating about Émile Durkheim’s labelling theory and God, just for once, it’s nice to have something smart occupying our thoughts for a few minutes. In fact, much of the discussion is as applicable to modern problems as it was in 1977. Watch is as honest entertainment or sly allegory and it works either way.
Guilt-free Binge: Saying that a prestige television drama feels like a film anymore is almost cliché. With Hollywood-sized budgets and a cachet among both actors and directors, it’s almost easier to find quality on your TV than in a multi-plex. But damnit if this doesn’t feel like watching Fincher’s Zodiac for the first time. Here, a determined, goody-goody lead character in a complex relationship with a smart woman mirrors the dynamic of Graysmith and his wife in that film in a satisfying way. But the similarities extend, of course, to the direction. No one does anxiety tinged with fear quite like Fincher. Recall the scene where Jake Gyllenhaal races to get out of the basement of a Zodiac suspect and you’ll understand the kind of slow-building, stomach churning misgivings Ford’s character reckons with during his first meeting with the six-foot-nine Kemper in prison. Gorgeous shots abound and the show benefits from its variety of settings as the two agents travel frequently in the field (à la X-Files). The show begins in 1977 and its faithful recreation of the period aesthetic feels just right for a show that has no need to be as stylized as Mad Men or as try-hard as the short-lived Pan Am). More than anything, the show makes you feel like you’re in good hands as a viewer. Fincher directs only four of this season’s episode, but sets the tone for quality for its remainder. Whether its coming episodes prove as assured as the first two remains to be seen for me. But I can tell you that there’s nothing I’d rather be doing once this review is turned in than to see what’s coming next. I think that means I like it.
Overall: Mindhunter is a not-to-be missed indulgence in the seamier side of life that nevertheless elevates the crime drama through director David Fincher’s steady hand, poised performances from an ensemble cast, and compelling subject matter.