The Buzz: 'Mindhunter' Breathes New Life into the Serial Killer

Is there a more overused trope in modern television than the serial killer? In the past decade, audiences have been treated to one prestigious crime show after another: Dexter, Hannibal, The Following, Aquarius, and the first season of True Detective, just to name a few. Each show has (say it with me now) a killer on the loose, and a dogged investigator who struggles to maintain his decency amidst an immoral world. It was a novel premise once upon a time, but has now become the status quo-- a tired fascination bordering on fatigue.

Mindhunter attempts to alleviate this fatigue by going, of all places, back to the beginning-- before “serial killer” had even entered the national lexicon. It’s 1977, and FBI agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) is struggling to make sense of a new wave of depraved killers. The Summer of Sam is still fresh in everyone's minds, and law enforcement is at a loss without logic or traditional motives to rely on. As Ford puts it: "The world barely makes any sense, so the crime doesn't either." He suspects there may be similarities and behavioral patterns to these killers, however, and begins research on what would become the first criminal profile of its kind.

To be clear, Mindhunter, based on the nonfiction book of the same name, is not your standard and tidy crime series. Most of its runtime consists of shop talk about criminology, sociology, and other theoretical constructs with little action to counteract it. If that's not something that instantly grabs you, it might be a challenging journey to go on. Those with a hankering for serial killer history, though, should be enthralled. The series breaks down how the terms and practices we associate with FBI profilers came to be, just as Ford (a stand-in for the book's author, John Douglas) and his partner Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) discover them. Each new breakthrough carries historic weight as a result, as if we were truly witnessing the birth of a new age in law enforcement.

Crucial to this weight is executive producer David Fincher, who directs four of the season's ten episodes and establishes its restrained tone. There's a discomfort that wafts through each scene, underscoring the most menial of conversations and suggesting that at any moment, chaos can erupt. When Ford works up the courage to interview Ed Kemper (a creepy Cameron Britton), a necrophiliac known as "The Co-Ed Killer", their banter about egg-salad sandwiches rank as some of the most unsettling in the entire series. Fincher relies heavily on wide shots here, never allowing us to get comfortable and inspect the characters up close (the show is shot in 2.35:1 aspect ratio, a wide format usually reserved for blockbuster films). It's a technique he perfected in 2007's Zodiac, a film that Mindhunter heavily borrows from in its depiction of procedural crime.

Ford's interviews with Kemper and other real-life killers like Richard Speck and Jerry Brudos are the biggest draw behind Mindhunter. Most shows treat interview scenes as a subplot-- a necessary evil used to solve a larger case, but Mindhunter has no such ulterior motives. It's sole purpose is to sit, listen, and get inside the mind of its subjects, and it does so with unwavering detail. We're sucked in as Kemper discusses the motives for decapitating his mother, studying his word choice, his dispassionate tone with the same perverse obsession as Ford and Tench. It heightens not only our own involvement, but the involvement of the characters as well, who begin to buckle under their gruesome research.

Beyond the interview room, Mindhunter is a bit less assured. That the show prioritizes criminal study over individual cases is what helps it stand out from its peers, but it also means the instances in which Ford and Tench actually do work a case are fairly nondescript. Then there is matter of the supporting cast, which could use some tinkering as the series moves forward. Ford's girlfriend Debbie (Hannah Gross) introduces him to some important concepts early on, but the remainder of her scenes consist of either pointless nudity or weak asides to the plot. I'm also leery of  Anna Torv's character, Dr. Wendy Carr. While she's a logical addition to the team, she never elevates past her status as a third wheel, caught between Groff's intriguing naiveté and McCallany's grizzled charm.

With that said, Mindhunter does succeed in breathing life into a tired genre. It's attention to detail is admirable, as are its efforts to avoid the standard case-of-the-week in favor of patient, autuer-driven storytelling. Netflix has already confirmed that it will return for a second season, and given the famed killers and rich historical events it has to pull from, its looks as though Mindhunter will continue to be a spellbinding ride for crime aficionados.

Season 1 of Mindhunter is currently streaming on Netflix.