Synopsis – In the late 1970s two FBI agents expand criminal science by delving into the psychology of murder and getting uneasily close to all-too-real monsters.
Episodes – S01E01 to S01E10
My Take – I finished this 10 episode long series a few days ago and I’m still dazed by how amazing it was! Initially I felt the world didn’t require yet another TV show about serial killers and the cops who hunt them, mainly as shows like Hannibal, Dexter, True Detective (Season 1) and Bates Motel ended gracefully (to some extend) leaving their own set of mark behind and with Criminal Minds still rocking in its 13th reason, I did question about the show’s integrity considering they were going to play in real events. Thankfully, Netflix had something else in mind, despite its basic context. Coming from the minds of director/ producer David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac) and creator Joe Penhall, this series instead innovatively approaches the crime narrative from a different angle as it attempts to focus less on the crime and more on the process of understanding the criminal. There are no car chases, no last-minute realizations, and little guts or violence (at least onscreen), instead the script focuses on a chronological psychological analysis with a sort of moral failure versus mental affliction vibe to it. True it can be a bit too slow at times, even for me, and yes there are a few hick-ups along the way, but in essence this is as good as TV can be, mainly as the plot is intelligent, stylish and bold, with a very unique and realistic set of dialogue, along with being so gorgeously shot and well directed that you doesn’t even care that show is talking about the most disturbing crimes in U.S. history. Yes, David Fincher‘s new series is an amazing exercise on screen writing, character development and style, a series that is worthy of his good name, and a series that reflects everything we love about David Fincher.
Based on the books of real life FBI agents John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker, the series follows Holden Ford (Jonathan Goff), an FBI hostage negotiator and instructor, in the late 1970s, who seems perplexed and confused about the new wave of violent crimes in the country. However, a chance meeting with Debbie Mitford (Hannah Gross), a sociology PhD candidate, in a bar opens his mind to solve his questions more sociologically. Despite apprehension at first, his Unit Chief Shepard (Cotter Smith), does agree to allow Holt to enroll in a nearby university to learn more about this distinct approach, leading to his recruitment in behavioral science division led by Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), who travels around the country teaching local law enforcements basic FBI techniques, along with consulting them on cases of severe nature. Using this an opportunity to study more about the criminal minds, Holden convinces Bill and Shepard to allow and support the gathering of information through various interviews with multiple murderers, with the help of Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), a psychology professor, in an effort to understand their psychology and thus develop a method to better understand, investigate and prevent such killings in the future. Once again David Fincher (director of Episodes 1, 2, 9, 10), with the support of his fellow directors, has taken a beautiful piece of writing and made it into something that is new, original, innovative of the genre, but most of all insanely riveting to watch. Another producer on the show is Charlize Theron, who won an Oscar for portraying Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003), one of the few female serial killers. Other than David Fincher, Anna Torv, was my instant attraction to watch this show as I still remember her brilliant charm in Fringe, however here, the talented actor is not the chief reason for the success, but a part of the bigger picture. This is a series that is both a philosophical and psychological thinker and requires your attention, and if you’re already not familiar with the real life characters (serial or “sequence” killers), you’ll have your phone handy to Google their names, and see what they really looked like and compare the accuracy of the show to the real world, that is eerily accurate. The show might get one or two episodes to get adjusted to and that is not a take away from it, it is actually a perk of this incredibly novel experience that is some of the best narrative work I’ve seen this year, as it is unapologetically fastidious – no hand-holding, no details skipped or squeamish facts avoided. What might start out as a confusing tone in the first episode quickly becomes a new kind of procedural narrative that takes the viewer in the deepest corner of these protagonists’ life. David Fincher is no stranger to examinations of demented minds, with both Fight Club and Gone Girl offering insights into the darker edges of human psychology – but in here he is given space to breathe. Unlike most procedurals, this series does not follow the system of ‘Case of the Week’, as Ford and Tench get involved in plenty of short-term investigations that both provide practical demonstrations of what they’re learning while keeping each hour feeling relatively distinct and whole. The series is fueled by conversations, some of these are purely character driven whilst others have real psychological talk in them and it is a pleasure for the viewer to be treated with such intelligence. The discussions they raise go much further than simply asking killers why they did what they did: the show is a brilliant way of exploring human behavior and psychology and the best part is that in some way it makes you feel like you are a part of the conversation. It asks questions, gives answers and then takes them back to leave the viewer truly active in the moral dilemmas raised.
There is not an easy answer, there isn’t a quick exit from these problems and by showing the full sophistication and complexity of the whole ordeal the audience is able to truly appreciate the work being done by the agents and get a insightful glimpse into these men’s lives. Each attempt to seek out information from the mind of a monster has a feeling of edginess to it. Almost like it is the last place they should be. When they get results, which then helps them with everyday investigations; it almost feels justifiable to the audience. As the season progresses, there is a real sense of opposing principles at times between the characters. There is such a stigma attached to killers that researching them feels immoral to others outside of this group. Holden holds such curiosity that he is almost eerie with his persistent research in some scenes. Here, Penhall, Fincher, and the rest of the creative team take a dry, no-frills approach to most of the narrative. The overall aesthetic isn’t flashy, but that’s the point — this is exhausting, sad work involving both victims and perpetrators who led small lives that have become shockingly big — and the drama is more potent because of how plain-spoken so much of this is. The story progression in each episode is convincing, with the obstacles Holden facing providing almost a palpable sense of impossibility to change the way of people’s thinking, for example, serial killer Ed Kemper here is presented as a huge fan of cop shows, and this seems like one he would make — though maybe not one he would enjoy actually watching. Playwright Joe Penhall adapted the series from the non-fiction book co-authored by John E. Douglas, the FBI legend who helped invent the modern version of criminal profiling. Ford and Tench are fictionalized versions of Douglas and his partner Robert Ressler — the better to give Penhall and his writer’s dramatic license to show how the work might impact each man’s personal life — though most of the criminals and cases they investigate are sadly, disgustingly real. Their partnership is presented as a cross between The X-Files and Masters of Sex, as the two men — Ford an intense believer in applying psychological theory to criminal work, Tench a weary veteran who knows Ford is onto something but is skeptical of how much his young partner invests himself in each case — travel the country interviewing convicted “sequence killers” (“serial killer” wasn’t in use yet) about what drove them to kill, and are banished to a basement office by bosses who find their work depraved and beneath the Bureau’s dignity. In time, they’re joined by academic Dr. Wendy Carr who keeps pushing the research forward even as she’s trying to pull Ford and Tench back from day-to-day casework that gets in the way of perfecting this new science. It has been a long time since I have enjoyed a group of characters as much as I have here. Holden Ford is a distinctly unique protagonist, aloof and detached, but not for a lack of trying, he isn’t an anti-hero – quite the opposite, instead he works too hard and parties too little.
This is brilliantly explored through his relationship with Debbie Mitford, a decidedly party-oriented girl, her intellectualism and open sexuality showing a side of women in the 70s not often explored. On the other hand, Bill Tench, his older colleague, offers a counterpoint to Ford’s disregard for the establishment. He is more ingrained in the system, aware of the price paid for too radical an approach in regards to an institution as glacial and micromanaged as the FBI. While, Carr, the most educated and forward-thinking of the three, helps both the characters and audience understand the far-reaching scale of the events unfolding before them. She is an internally rich character, full of conflict forced upon her by the time in which she lives. But heading into the middle of the season, the series makes the same mistake that seemingly countless Netflix dramas have made over the years: the show lags in the middle. While I’m hesitant to look at this as a hard rule or fact, when noting the best shows of the year so far, there’s a pretty common trend. Netflix hasn’t figured out yet how to recognize when less is more. The show‘s middling middle episodes, when not establishing the character of Wendy Carr, Holden and Bill’s third partner, fall a little too close to becoming a more cerebral version of the network crime procedural. I am not sure how to respond to their hiring Gregg (Joe Turtle) instead of the more qualified black applicant. That was blatant racism, and Professor Carr’s logic to justify it made it even more uncomfortable. The fact that Gregg actually started to fit in upsets me even more. Performance wise, Jonathan Groff was a real revelation here, this performance is truly special. There is not a false beat in his performance, you are always conscious of why you empathize with him and the best part is that you do even when he is making decisions that are highly questionable. Here is where Holt McCallany comes in, grounding the show and undermining the tough cop cliché with the season’s most emotionally devastating and unexpected moments. Anna Torv absolutely nails her character. A strong performance and fascinating character that I hope we’ll see a lot more from in season 2. Cameron Britton captures both Edmund Kemper’s physical and mental presence impeccably – Kemper stands 6 foot 9 inches tall, weighing over 250 pounds and has an IQ reportedly around 145. It is undoubtedly the performance of the show. Kemper is calm, collected and approachable. He knows how to talk to Ford, the staff and other inmates; how best to push their buttons to get what he wants. Even as he is cuffed and tied, he seems to control the room. Hannah Gross & Cotter Smith also play their parts very well. On the whole, ‘Mindhunter’ Season 1 is a compelling, gripping and alluring character study that remains thrilling, suspenseful, intense, and really entertaining throughout. By the way, season 2 is well on the way. In fact, a second season was greenlit before Season 1 had even been released on Netflix.
Creator – Joe Penhall
Status – Season 1 (Completed)
Network – Netflix