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Netflix’s ‘Mindhunter:’ less than the sum of its parts

Netflix has a lot of original shows, so many that it’s getting hard to keep track. Sure, everybody has heard of the hits “Stranger Things,” “Master of None” and their gritty Marvel dramas, but a lot of shows end up falling through the cracks. Take the Jason Bateman passion project “Ozark,” or Netflix’s latest prestige drama, “Mindhunter.” There was no real hype behind this project when it arrived last Friday, and it’s a shame for them because “Mindhunter” had the potential to replicate the success of Netflix’s original hit, “House of Cards.” But then again, “Mindhunter” doesn’t quite actualize on it’s promise, so perhaps that lack of marketing was a purposeful move from Netflix. Whatever “Mindhunter” could have been, what it’s not is a legitimately compelling drama.

What drew my attention to “Mindhunter” is that the show has the backing of David Fincher, who kickstarted Netflix’s first real success in the original content department: “House of Cards.” Fincher, director of “Fight Club,” “The Social Network” and “Gone Girl,” is arguably the best working director in Hollywood, and has a very specific eye (sometimes forcing actors to shoot dozens of takes to get just the right shot). He has a cold, astute style that he brings to all of his work, and “Mindhunter” is no different. Fincher helmed the first two and last two episodes, which immediately posed a few questions for this review: How are the Fincher episodes? And do the directors of the later episodes measure up to the bar he sets?

I only made it through the first four episodes (of ten), but the honest answer seems to be that the other directors aren’t outdone by Fincher, because this is far from his best work.

Set in 1977, “Mindhunter” follows young, idealistic FBI agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and his investigations into criminal psychology that will eventually lead to the classification of the “serial killer.” Apparently until the late seventies, the FBI and law enforcement were incredibly dismissive of investigations into the motives of deranged criminals, with our protagonist and his partner (Holt McCallany) essentially inventing a brand new aspect of policing. It’s a period piece: There are a lot of great seventies cars on display and, at least in the first episode, a lot of bad dialogue about how America has gone to hell.

The execution here is somewhat interesting: Holden and Holt (wow, are those names hilariously old fashioned) are assigned to provide local police departments around the country with FBI expertise. This expertise, as we come to see, is outdated, hence the need for Holden’s criminal psychology investigation. They interview serial killers imprisoned near the counties where they’re teaching.

Meanwhile, Holden and Holt are constantly consulting and helping these police departments with especially grotesque murders, putting their new psychological insight to use. This is some of the best stuff on “Mindhunter”—watching Holden and Holt ascribing motive to a killer with only the knowledge of a crime scene is fun because they’re indulging in a science the two haven’t quite invented yet. It’s conjecture, but only because the pair hasn’t been able to do enough research to iron out the protocol to know who to look for.

What also works are the interviews with the killers. These scenes feel earned: There’s always an FBI agent getting in the way who thinks the criminals have nothing of value to share, and thus these interviews are pointless pandering to lunatics. The second episode in particular, which features a talkative murder by the name of Ed Kemper, brings some life into the show.

However, it’s life that “Mindhunter” can’t really sustain. Each episode I’ve seen (aside from episode four) just sort of ends, killing any narrative momentum. That’s part of the reason why I stopped watching before the end of the season.

And “Mindhunter” really doesn’t stand up well in comparison to any of its peers. As an examination of an America gone by, it’s nowhere near as insightful as “Mad Men,” and as an exploration of the Carter era nowhere near as fun or aesthetically engaging as the second season of “Fargo.” If anything, the show “Mindhunter” most closely resembles NBC’s short lived “Hannibal,” another alternate take on the “catch-a-killer” drama. But where “Hannibal” was a show about the trauma catching killers would create pretending to be a procedural, “Mindhunter” lacks a compelling theme that to keep you watching. And it’s definitely not as good as Fincher’s first foray into television, the aforementioned “House of Cards.”

Most of all, “Mindhunter” ends up reminding me a lot of “Zodiac,” Fincher’s most personal film. But it’s also one of his longest movies, and like “Mindhunter,” it’s meandering exploration of the past that follows a fresh faced young man who desperately wants to catch a killer. If you really enjoyed “Zodiac,” or have a genuine interest in the history of the investigation of criminal psychology, “Mindhunter” might be for you. But for the rest of us, we’ll just wait for season two of “Stranger Things,” which will be streaming by the time this review is published. Because that’s the Netflix promise: There’s always something else to watch.

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