Ever since HBO’s acclaimed “The Wire,” the show many point to as the bellwether of our current era of ‘Peak TV,’ it seems that there has been a never- ending stream of incredibly polished crime dramas: “The Fall,” “Fargo,” “True Detective,” the list goes on. Until recently, there was no heir apparent for 2017. Then came “Mindhunter,” Net ix’s latest original series released earlier this month, which seems destined to be crowned the next king of bingeable, buzzworthy crime television.
Created by playwright and screenwriter Joe Penhall and featuring acclaimed lm director David Fincher—responsible for films such as “Fight Club,” “Gone Girl” and “The Social Network”—as a collaborator, “Mindhunter” is loosely based on the memoir of the same name by former Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent John E. Douglas. The series presents a relatively fictionalized origin story of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (BSU), developed with the goal of putting theories from the blossoming fields of sociology and psychology to work in the eld by using it to identify and categorize abnormal behavior—that is, criminal pro ling. In order to find and identify these patterns, the BSU extensively interviewed the worst kinds of repeat offenders. The FBI agents in “Mindhunter” are fictional, though sometimes loosely based on real individuals. However, the names— Edmund Kemper, Richard Speck—and crimes of the serial killers featured in the show are all true-to-life.
Technically, “Mindhunter” is excellent. It’s got the visual polish viewers have come to expect from Fincher: the smooth camera movement, the careful color palette, the elegant framing that reminds audiences of all the subtle ways the tricks of filmmaking can show group dynamics and interior confiicts without explicitly telling them through dialogue. Thematically, the show hits many notes that others have before, as one can only expect with so many series now occupying the same niche, but it does so with a degree of thoughtful nuance rarely seen before. In dealing with the matter of people who seem not merely predisposed but predestined to crime by a lethal combination of nature and nurture, it goes to uncomfortably morally grey and ethically ambiguous places that have barely been touched upon since Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking 1931 lm “M,” in spite of popular culture’s enduring obsession with the serial killer.
That is not to say that “Mindhunter” does not have its faults. While it highlights the destructive force of toxic masculinity in all its hideous glory to a degree rarely seen elsewhere, this degree of self-aware psychological insight does not save the otherwise elegant show from stumbling when it comes to dealing with women and people of color. In a show with its fair share of disturbing moments—I have never eaten canned tuna, and I can now say with full confidence that I never will—perhaps the most concerning is how it seems to find it harder to shape compelling female characters than compelling psychopathic serial killers. There are two major female characters in “Mindhunter,” and one is developed just fine. The character of Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv of “Fringe”), a renowned psychologist who quickly becomes a key player, features comparable nuance and depth to the other members of the BSU team: baby-faced Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), the criminal-obsessed and increasingly unlikeable protagonist, grizzled Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), the straight-talking but deeply sensitive senior partner and latecomer Gregg Smith (Joe Tuttle), a wide-eyed Catholic family man who seems about as well- suited to his job as a surgeon with a fear of blood. The issue comes in the form of Ford’s girlfriend Debbie (Hannah Gross), a sort of manic pixie hippie dream girl plot device yearning to be an actual human being, like an undercooked female version of Pinocchio that never actually gets to be a “real girl.”
The most frustrating part is that the show seems fully aware of this issue. Debbie’s dialogue often comes across like a pre-emptive reaction to anticipated feminist criticism, like a disclaimer from the writers that they are aware of various tired girlfriend tropes—as if that somehow earns them the right to fall into the same old cliches without a slap on the wrist. There’s a multiple episode stretch where her character is seemingly incapable of being introduced except in the context of an explicit sex scene. The rationale behind the existence of these sex scenes is evident and valid enough; they show how Holden’s interactions with psychopathic sex offenders are beginning to influence his attitude towards women and sex. But the way Debbie is repeatedly reintroduced in this context just underlines her role as a multi-purpose plot device in a show otherwise populated by rounded characters.
Dealing with the matter of racial diversity, “Mindhunter” attempts a similar pre-emptive rebuttal that, while displaying a depth of awareness that brings to mind the old mantra “the first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one,” ultimately feels feeble and hollow. People of color populate the background in a way that seems fair to the realities of 70s demographics, but characters with actual speaking roles are another matter.
In the BSU team’s search for a new member they interview Jim, a seemingly ideal candidate. He’s charismatic, clever, driven and clearly enthusiastic about the project—a real go-getter. He’s also Black, and that ends up being a dealbreaker. Tench wants to hire him, but Carr shoots him down. “Our list of potential subjects are 80, 90 percent white and probably racist,” she says. “He could incite a response that affects the study.”
Carr’s dismissal of Jim is rooted in a de nite logic, painful as that may be. However, the show’s self-aware addressment of why the BSU has no non-white members does not excuse the general lack of diversity among the main cast on the whole in any way. For example, Tench has a wife and Ford, as already mentioned, has a girlfriend. Interracial relationships are not a 21st century invention.
As it stands, “Mindhunter” is a good show about half a step away from being great. It is clearly aware of its own shortcomings, which is more than can often be said in such scenarios, but it needs to remember that no one likes hearing excuses. There is more than enough brainpower at work behind the scenes to figure out ways to actually fix these issues instead of trying to claim immunity via disclaimer.
While only time will tell which among the many plot threads big and small left untied at the end of the rst season will be picked up in season two, David Fincher has already revealed that the historical killing spree at the center of the sophomore season will be the Atlanta child murders of 1979-81. There were 28 victims, all Black, including a few adults but mostly children and adolescents, both male and female. The man ultimately convicted in relation to the killing spree, Wayne Williams, is also Black.
Especially considering the direction of the subject matter, there are two equally likely outcomes for “Mindhunter” season two: it will mature into the truly great, groundbreaking show it clearly has the potential to be, or it will faceplant in a spectacular manner. Either way, one hopes that the BSU crew will truly come to regret not hiring Jim, the Black FBI agent from Atlanta. Considering where their future is headed, Tench really had it right in naming Jim the “best candidate.” Then again, hindsight usually is twenty- twenty, is it not?