The serial-killer show is an odd genre of television to reinvent with a heavy gloss of sepia and auteurism: a prolific and successful subset of the criminal procedural, itself an even more prolific and successful mainstay of morbidly comforting entertainment. Just ask Netflix, which currently houses 12 full seasons of CBS’s Criminal Minds, eight of Dexter, and four of Law & Order: SVU. On Friday, Netflix will attempt to tweak the formula with Mindhunter, which brings the imprimaturs of David Fincher, nonfiction source material, and serialized structure to bear on the tried-and-true appeal of FBI profilers tracking down killers with their psychological know-how. The original template ain’t broke, but series creator Joe Penhall still intends to fix it.
Mindhunter isn’t the first attempt to tweak the procedural, though recent efforts haven’t typically matched the commercial heights of the original. Hannibal successfully infused its chosen framework with homoeroticism, art-film flourishes, and meditations on mental illness, but even with established intellectual property at its back, Bryan Fuller’s fever dream was canceled after just three seasons on NBC. True Detective’s first season hooked audiences on a heady cocktail of Southern noir and occult conspiracy only to deliver something much more prosaic in Season 2. The Killing never overcame the oxymoron of the “anti-cop cop show.” And on a much sillier note, ABC’s Time After Time was an abortive, unholy fusion, grafting an of-the-moment vogue for time travel onto the centuries-old mystery of Jack the Ripper. In most cases, viewers’ appetite for novelty proved less compelling than network executives had clearly guessed.
Mindhunter’s pedigree puts it in a slightly more privileged position than those network experiments. Fincher, an executive producer along with Charlize Theron, also directed the first two hours—the only episodes, out of an eventual 10, provided to critics ahead of Friday’s premiere. It’s obvious why Fincher would once again be attracted to the true-crime story of a crew of obsessives fighting crime in the late 20th century: Mindhunter is set precisely 10 years after the events of Zodiac, in 1979, and in lieu of the Zodiac killer, it’s David Berkowitz—better known as the Son of Sam—who looms over the popular imagination. The promise of resurrecting the sensibility of a film that was named in a recent BBC critics’ poll as one of the best films of the 21st century just as it celebrates its 10-year anniversary grants Mindhunter a baseline level of anticipation. So does Mindhunter’s status as Fincher’s second foray into television after House of Cards, a show now five seasons and many Emmy nominations into a successful run.
Like Zodiac, Mindhunter is also based on a book, subtitled Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit and coauthored by real-life Bureau profiler John Douglas. Douglas provides the basis for protagonist Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff, in his first series lead role after HBO’s tragically short-lived Looking), an idealistic agent who becomes obsessed with criminal psychology and what he calls “sequence killers” when he’s retired from the field to teach at Quantico. Mindhunter’s basis in fact and history gives it a leg up over the sometimes absurd inventions of Criminal Minds or, memorably, textbook shark-jump Dexter; Douglas gleaned many of his insights into serial killers’ thinking by interviewing imprisoned subjects, and so does Ford. The second episode features several conversations with a chilling Edmund Kemper, and the series’ slick opening credits—a prestige signifier if there ever was one—intercuts close-ups of a tape recorder with brief close-ups of mutilated corpses.
More than its creative team or its origin story, what chiefly distinguishes Mindhunter from its peers is its rhythm. The procedural is synonymous with the self-contained episode and therefore a rapid clip, with a one-to-one ratio of cases to solve and hours it takes to solve them that’s only occasionally, if ever, interrupted by a season-long arc. But as a streaming series, a format that encourages long-term stories over distinct episodes with the knowledge that viewers will be consuming a season over hours instead of weeks, Mindhunter slows that story down—way down.
Its premise, as outlined in its trailers and press materials, is that Ford, like Douglas before him, will start using the takeaways from his interviews to capture still-active killers and perfect the science of profiling. After two hours and a fifth of its season, the actual show still hasn’t arrived at that sustainable blueprint—possibly because Penhall and his cowriter Jennifer Haley have the luxury of time, having already been renewed for a second season. Instead, Mindhunter uses its first hour to land Ford in the Academy and introduce him to his Manic Pixie Dream Grad Student Debbie (Hannah Gross), who teaches him the virtues of cunnilingus and Dog Day Afternoon, and partner Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), the grizzled, no-nonsense veteran to Ford’s wide-eyed novice. The second hour establishes Ford’s experimental interviews and gives them tentative approval from Bureau higher-ups, but there are still dots that need to be connected and key players who remain offstage. An all-too-brief cold open hints at a fledgling case for Ford to crack, but the agent still hasn’t connected the dots between how killers behind bars could lead him to psychopaths still in the wild. The female lead, Fringe’s Anna Torv, has yet to be introduced—and given how thin the rest of Mindhunter’s women are, she’s sorely needed.
It’s too early to tell whether Mindhunter’s slow burn pays off. Watching the initial episodes, it’s often difficult to discern if one is simply so accustomed to a case-of-the-week structure that its mere absence feels disorienting or if Mindhunter has failed to come up with a central narrative compelling enough to replace it. Executed correctly, Mindhunter aspires to be the origin story for the already well-populated TV sector the show is inserting itself into—a story about the discovery and refinement of profiling as well as its applications. Before it can become that, though, there are obstacles Mindhunter must overcome that go beyond pace: exposition-heavy, tell-don’t-show dialogue that can’t get out of Fincher’s way, for example, and an eye-roll-inducing reliance on unsexy sex scenes that feel both perfunctory and unnecessary.
Yet it’s undeniable that Mindhunter succeeds in announcing itself as a new and different kind of serial-killer show. Experiments are by nature risky, and Mindhunter is experimenting with nothing less than a TV institution. Why shouldn’t it aim to do for the profiling drama what The Shield and The Wire did for other kinds of cop shows?