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Netflix’s Mindhunter, from David Fincher, puts a genuinely new spin on the cop drama

The series leaves its most gruesome moments entirely to your imagination — to its benefit.

Holt McCallany and Jonathan Groff play FBI agents who try to understand criminal psychology in Mindhunter.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

A new way to do a cop show where most episodes see the characters solve a new case — often dubbed a “crime procedural” — is the holy grail of TV development. At this point, there’ve been so many slight variations on the detective template that something like “a stage magician helps the police solve crimes” is an actual show coming to your TV sometime next year.

But I never expected a legitimately new take on the crime procedural to arrive courtesy of Netflix, which is, um, not known for doing case-of-the-week shows.

Mindhunter, a new series with big names like Charlize Theron and David Fincher among its producers, puts a surprisingly compelling spin on the very basic idea of two cops partnering up to solve crimes. We don’t see gruesome acts of violence — outside of the occasional crime scene photo — and many of the criminals the cops talk to are already in prison. But there’s a creeping, chilly horror at its center, a growing sense that something is irreparably broken in the world and nobody’s going to put it back together.

The series is built almost entirely around conversation, around trying to understand what’s going on in somebody else’s head by talking to them and getting under their skin. Its big set pieces aren’t gruesome murders, but scenes where killers describe their heinous acts in the dispassionate tones we might reserve for a grocery list.

Mindhunter is not, by any means, a perfect show, nor does it succeed at everything it sets out to accomplish. But its intense focus on the inner workings of the human brain makes for a surprisingly fascinating watch that examines the roots of human darkness without seeming to revel in it.

Everything about Mindhunter’s premise is familiar. Everything about its execution is not.

Cameron Britton plays real life killer Ed Kemper, whom the agents interview.

The single biggest demerit against Mindhunter is that its Fincher-directed premiere is truly dire. The episode aims to set up the 1970s world the show takes place in, where the examination of criminal behavior tends to stop at “criminals are evil,” and where a young FBI agent named Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) gets it into his head that examining the roots of criminal psychology might be an important new field of inquiry.

But the episode is mostly a mess, in the way so many Netflix first episodes are messes. Nothing really happens, a handful of good scenes are swallowed by glacial pacing, and there’s little to no indication of why the story begins at this time or in this place. It feels almost like the first two minutes of a movie stretched out to cover an entire hour, even when Holden first meets Agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), the man who will become his partner, foil, and sounding board. The whole thing feels listless, unstructured.

So honestly, you should maybe just skip to episode two, also directed by Fincher, in which Ford and Tench begin the work of trying to understand the acts committed by very human monsters by visiting the prisons where they’re incarcerated and talking with them. Mindhunter offers a loose adaptation of the 1996 book of the same name, and both Ford and Tench are based on the real men who were foundational to the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, which helped members of law enforcement start to understand the nature of criminality.

Mercifully, the deeper the show gets into its 10-episode season, the more confident it becomes. It’s almost as if it’s inventing the crime procedural before your very eyes. (Late in the season, in fact, the characters come up with the term “serial killer” — which was indeed coined during the era Mindhunter is set in — and then decide to see if it sticks.) We’re now used to trying to think about what could go wrong in someone’s mind to turn them into a compulsive killer, but Ford and Tench are at the bleeding edge of a very new field, which leads to plenty of other law enforcement officials feeling they should have a bit more propriety. Several scenes feature the two of them casually discussing the motives behind a crime as people who aren’t immersed in their work look on, uncomfortably.

Slowly but surely, the two assemble a team, one that includes psychologist Wendy Carr (Fringe’s Anna Torv), who helps them apply better scientific rigor to their interviews, and they start to use the data they collect to help local police departments solve crimes. By the time Mindhunter gets to its very first scene in which Ford and Tench interrogate a suspected murderer who has yet to confess to his crime (in the season finale!) it’s taken one of the most shopworn scenes in TV — two cops try to get a confession — and returned it to what made it compelling in the first place.

Ford and Tench make a good team — eventually.

The show’s team of directors (led by Fincher) helps enhance the sense that you can try to understand these crimes but never truly know why they happen. Close-ups are kept to a minimum — when Ford and Tench make a breakthrough, a medium shot of a criminal suffices to convey that they might be on the right track. (The whole project is shot in the ultra-wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio, often reserved for epic films and rarely used on television. It only adds to the distancing effect.) But to really understand these sorts of behaviors, you have to almost become immersed in them, and the camera hangs back to suggest the agents’ remove.

Mindhunter largely hinges on Groff’s turn as Ford; he plays the character as if he’s constantly daring himself to break down the walls in his head and become a serial killer himself, then experiences some disappointment when he decides to continue on his current course of not murdering anybody.

To be honest, the performance doesn’t always work (especially coupled with the frequently clunky, “just the facts” writing from a team led by Joe Penhall), but I got more into it the longer the season went on and the more I keyed into the way Groff portrays Ford as a man playing keep-away with himself. Mindhunter’s great theme is compartmentalization; it’s particularly interested in how we put on different masks to deal with different situations, and how compartmentalizing too much can be highly damaging. Groff’s Ford plays right into that.

The show is certainly not without flaws. Its occasional cutaways to Dennis Rader, known as the serial killer BTK, as he obsessively works through his murderous methods made me laugh more than they probably should have, and Mindhunter wants to have its “people were more racist, sexist, and homophobic in the ’70s” cake and eat it too, by reassuring viewers that they have more advanced attitudes in this modern age.

But something in the show clung to me like a thin, sticky film. Its confidence in its approach, and its willingness to bear witness as Ford and Tench develop their own methods, methods very familiar to true crime fans, elevate it to something whose whole works far better than any of its parts. By never once looking directly at dark, gruesome acts, Mindhunter is better able to engage with true darkness, with the idea that you can know somebody as well as possible, but not know them at all.

Mindhunter is streaming on Netflix.