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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vaux

TV Review: Mindhunter

Netflix series Mindhunter is now two seasons through a planned five season run, offering a mix of character study, police procedural and true crime.

Created by Joe Penhall (who wrote the 2009 film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road and the 2004 film adaptation of Ian McEwan's Enduring Love), the series is inspired by real events.

Set in the 1970s, it follows the exploits of fictionalised FBI agents Holden Ford and Bill Tench as they establish and develop the pioneering Behavioural Sciences Unit at Quantico, eliciting the help of similarly fictionalised psychologist Dr Wendy Carr to interview, classify and catch real life psychopathic multiple murderers.

The seed for the series came from the non-fiction memoir Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit by John E. Douglas, which was optioned by Charlize Theron, who continues to executive produce.

Douglas was a real life FBI agent who is also notorious for bending the truth. His book has inspired a great many serial killer novels and films, most notably the Thomas Harris series of Hannibal Lecter novels in which Will Graham and Clarice Starling are supervised by Jack Crawford - a character modeled on Douglas.

Here, the slimy, slightly autistic, eerily handsome Holden Ford is implied as the cypher for Douglas. Played brilliantly by Jonathan Groff (Glee, Frozen, Looking), he is a loner who shoots from the hip, goes on instinct, and is a liability - albeit a gifted one.

His counterpoint, and the chalk to his cheese, is played by seasoned character actor Holt McCallany. You will have seen McCallany in something over the years, and will likely recognise his square jaw and intense blue eyes. In this series, he is playing a character who appears, at first, to be a cookie cutter representation of a 1970s policeman. But all is not quite as it seems with Tench, thankfully.

Then, rounding out the central cast is Dr Carr, played by Anna Torv (Fringe, The Secret Life of Us, and voice of Nariko in Ninja Theory's Andy Serkis-led video game Heavenly Sword).

I have a real soft spot for Torv, who bears a striking resemblance to Cate Blanchett and who can really act, and one major criticism I have of Mindhunter is the lack of interesting things the show gives the her to do. She is mostly filed her in B-plots about repressed sexuality and workplace gender politics, and I wish that she was given a little more agency.

The core of the programme is excellent however, with hour long episodes (give or take 10 minutes here and there) split fairly evenly between the story of the Behavioural Science Unit's development, seriously tense interviews with seriously scary people, and chunks of juicy crime-busting.

Undoubtedly the programme is slow, and in this and other areas it bears comparisons to HBO's True Detective; it is rare for anyone in Mindhunter to really rush, and the show's pleasure is very much in the excellent production design, tone, and the slow burn tension of people talking, solving problems, and obfuscating.

The series does make time for other things, including Tench's difficult home life, which draws quite heavily from Mad Men and, dare I say it, We Need To Talk About Kevin, with Tench having an adopted son, Brian, who just ain't right (and a frustrated housewife who... you know... just can't can't cope).

Elsewhere, the series pulls a bit of a Hannibal, artfully tracking the grotesque progress of serial killers who are nowhere near being caught by our intrepid heroes. And yes, there are other supporting characters with little odds and sods to do, but the main substance of the programme is Holden being slippery yet incisive, Tench being gruffly skeptical, and Wendy being the slightly pinched voice of reason.

This might not sound like an entirely winning formula, and it does have issues, but Mindhunter undeniably makes for pretty compulsive viewing. It is is aided enormously in this by executive production assistance and key episode direction from David Fincher (Zodiac, Panic Room, Se7en).

Fincher knows and loves the subject matter, and his fingerprints are everywhere here. He has evidently aided Penhall, his fellow writers, and the rest of the episode directors in establishing and maintaining a style and tone that clearly evoke his film work; if you are looking for Zodiac: The Series then, frankly, this is as good as you're going to get.

Helping the show yet further is its US-wide scope, with Holden and Tench doing a Mulder and Scully, traveling all over the States to meet and catch criminals. Part of what makes Season 2 of the show so brilliant, in fact, is the amount of time it spends in the city of Atlanta, which proves a potent and grimly beautiful backdrop for sustained horror.

Having absolutely adored Donald Glover's offbeat comedy drama Atlanta in recent years, and being a long-time fan of The Wire, the sweaty streets where we are spending our time, and the issues we are addressing, are hardly new; urban decay, racial tensions, and political skullduggery are rich veins to mine for drama, and in Mindhunter the excavations feel apropos and timely.

Indeed, there is a lot about Mindhunter that feels current, in spite of its period setting. In particular, it is a very #MeToo show. It focuses on men, explaining how over 99% of serial killers are male, for example. The series asks us to sit with this, and asks pertinent questions.

What is it about men that enables them to dehumanize people and engage in sexual exploitation and heinous violence?

What is it about men also that means they so often disregard what women have to say?

What is it about empowered white men in particular that makes them so comfortable maligning those from other sexual, cultural or racial backgrounds?

It helps that the 1970s were a brilliant time for rock and roll music, and the show is packed with excellent tunes. But some of the best stuff in Mindhunter is the stuff that makes you really angry just in the course of day-to-day business. The work of fellow agent Jim Barney, for example, played superbly by Albert Jones (The Bourne Ultimatum, American Gangster, Salt). The man is a work horse. He's brilliant, sensitive and insightful, but he is also African American, and so is stuck supporting sulky ol' Holden and negligent ol' Tench.

There are no Omar's here, and no Hannibal Lecter's either. But there are real boogie men, and in many senses they are more interesting.

Obviously then, you have to be interested in serial killers to want to watch Mindhunter. Those for whom sexual violence and strong language are issues should give it a wide berth. And undoubtedly Mindhunter has a long way to go to prove itself; it is only 40% through the overall story it wants to tell, and between Dr Carr's sidelining and Tench's domestic melodramas there are worrying signs that the show might be driving itself into some dead ends.

All of that said, so far Mindhunter has not committed any cardinal sins. Its characters have made sensible decisions (for them), and the real life horrors it has dramatized have been utterly compelling (I urge you not to read about any of the cases it covers - let Penhall & co do their work).

As such, if you are seeking a tense, stylish, thought-provoking crime series, I would suggest giving Mindhunter a look.

Just be careful.

To paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche, when you look long into the abyss, the abyss also looks back into you...

Mindhunter Series 1 and 2 are available on Netflix.

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