Mindhunter Season 1 Review: David Fincher’s Omnipresent Stamp

Photo Credit:http://ew.com/tv/2017/08/01/mindhunter-jonathan-groff-netflix-trailer/

Back in 2012, putting a cinema auteur like David Fincher’s name on a piece of television was unheard of. The Social Network director may have only helmed that series’ first two episodes of House of Cards, but they look and sound like a David Fincher film. The neutral palette, the zippy yet matter of fact dialogue, the constant state of moral uneasiness. The show has kept the aesthetic identical to how Fincher set it up, even if the show has gone off the rails, through no fault of his own since he didn’t stay on after season one, in a way the director never quite has on the big screen. But if you look at the subjects historically that the director has been interested in, House of Cards is a bit of an anomaly. Mindhunter very much is not. In fact, Zodiac seems like the template for this whole season, albeit with different situations and nuances.

Set in 1970s America, Mindhunter is a deep dive into the rise of criminal psychology that happened after the dawn of what we now call the serial killer. The only things trendier in television than crime sagas right now are superheroes and shows that promote “wokeness.” But Fincher, directing four of the ten episodes, guides the series into something much more interesting and introspective, yet no less creepy.

A lot of that is due to our fascinating lead. Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) is a special agent in the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit based on the real life John E. Douglas, who went on to write a number of books on criminal psychology. Holden sees an alternative method to handling situations with people most cops back then, and probably now, would write off as crazy. His hope is for everyone to come out alive, but alas, that’s a tricky feat to pull off. The pilot spends time defining his character while introducing us to his soon-to-be girlfriend Debbie (Hannah Gross) and his partner Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), based on the real life Robert K. Ressler. Holden remains the show’s secret weapon from the pilot onward, however. Groff plays him similarly to his character Patrick on Looking, awkward, insecure, easily pleased with himself, and just a little left of center. It’s the extreme tonal shift and content that changes that last part. On Looking, Groff’s quirks were charming, here they contribute to the show’s overall grim vibe, as if Holden’s ability to approach these cases as if they’re routine makes him closer to the actual murderers than his much more grounded partner.

The second episode, far and away the season’s best, makes us a fly on the wall for some of the most significant criminal psychology observations in our history. Holden starts visiting and taking notes on real life serial killer Edmund Kemper (a haunting turn from relative newcomer Cameron Britton). Bill eventually joins him, giving the show a continually rewarding three-way dynamic for a couple episodes.

But heading into the middle of the season, Mindhunter 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. The LeftoversLegion, and Feud were all eight episodes, while Big Little Lies and Game of Thrones were a mere seven, which isn’t even a nice round number for a network to put out. Netflix hasn’t figured out yet how to recognize when less is more. Mindhunter‘s middling middle episodes, when not establishing the character of Wendy (Anna Torv), Holden and Bill’s third partner, fall a little too close to becoming a more cerebral version of the network crime procedural. Groff and McCallany have great chemistry, almost to the point where a procedural starring them doesn’t sound half bad,  but the series is best when its challenging that notion by having them explore the psychological problems of their own lives while talking to murderers.

The end of the season picks up again, with Fincher directing the final two episodes, but the end result still feels like there’s a great show in here trying to break out of a merely very good one. With a second season already greenlit, Mindhunter has a chance to hone in on its character work next season, with the establishing material all out of the way. It’s still an enjoyable, thought-provoking watch in season one, just not anything that will blow your mind. Yet. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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