Knowing what we know about the way Netflix develops its original series—and if you don’t know, listen here—MINDHUNTER should come as no surprise. You’ve got the executive producer of HOUSE OF CARDS in a quasi-police procedural/period drama capitalizing on the current explosion of true crime fanaticism, which Netflix has clearly already capitalized on in excess. Whether or not you agree with the Orwellian nature of Netflix’s development process, it’s hard to argue with it when the results are just so good. MINDHUNTER adds yet another home run to the Netflix Originals catalog, delivering the perfect blend of bingeability, outstanding writing, and just plain ol’ great filmmaking.
Our story takes place in America of the late 1970s: a significantly more reckless, violent, and inexplicably brown era of history. Holden is a well-meaning but naive FBI hostage negotiator who sets out to determine the cause of the uptick of mass slayings by interviewing some of America’s most notorious killers themselves. He teams up with Grizzled Cop and Hard-Ass Lady to categorize these new violent crimes, eventually coining the term “serial killer” while subverting Mean FBI Director Who Doesn’t Understand at every turn.
Seriously, like, really, really brown
I hesitate to call anything “perfect,” but MINDHUNTER’s approach to the true crime canon is damn near perfection. Again, knowing what we know about the way Netflix handles its programming, I assumed all the Ed Kemper-centric ads I was getting for this series were because Big Brother knows I’m a member of the LAST PODCAST ON THE LEFT Facebook group and I check eBay every once in awhile to see if any of Kemper’s hand-made ceramic mugs are available for sale. I figured the actual serial killers would be in the show for about 10 minutes, and was very pleasantly surprised to find that they play a major role over the course of the entire season—particularly Kemper. The team behind this show clearly knows their shit about serial killers, and they nail it consistently on all counts: from the main characters’ analysis of the killings and the terminology they use, to the personalities and portrayals of the killers themselves, and the little easter eggs for the truly fanatic among us (“I guess you could call making furniture out of victims an ‘organized killer’?”). It nails it to the point that I felt bad at how giddy I was espousing true crime facts, only to see them manifest onscreen.
Severing a human head and making a really nice mug are not mutually exclusive skill sets
Yet, despite its myriad true crime influences, MINDHUNTER rises above a 10-hour true crime jerk-off. (No AMERICAN VANDAL pun intended.) It doesn’t aim to comment on the true crime genre itself; rather, it uses true crime as a jump-off point to construct its own messages about masculinity and humanity. It’s fun for the true crime fanatics in the audience to see Jerry Brudos jerk off into a woman’s shoe, but you don’t have to be eyeballs-deep in serial killer trivia to appreciate what this show is doing. In this respect, MINDHUNTER is a great follow-up to AMERICAN VANDAL, a series so entrenched in inside jokery that it might as well be in Ancient Greek if you haven’t listened to every episode of SERIAL.
MINDHUNTER pulls this off by building a strong, original world against the backdrop of its real life inspirations. The fact that the original characters can hold their own against the portrayals of the serial killers really speaks to just how tight the writing is. (Although, Cameron Britton as Kemper does completely steal every scene he’s in.) Holden’s gradual descent into sociopathy is terrifying, and his ultimate redemption is as cathartic for us as it is for him. Bill Tench fills the “grizzled veteran mentor” slot nicely, but has a rich life of his own between his marriage (which, refreshingly, is a tough but good marriage) and struggling to parent a child with autism. Wendy and Debbie are both total badass ladies with their own goals and aspirations, and don’t exist merely to be love interests. They challenge Holden and Bill, and struggle with the ongoing investigation in their own way.
With killers like Kemper and Brudos on the docket, discussions of toxic masculinity are bound to arise. MINDHUNTER tackles the concept with a harsh and discerning eye, yielding a poignant examination of how men and women relate to each other. What does it mean to be a man—or a monster? What does it mean to be a woman, or a mother, or both? Holden and Tench’s interviews with the killers bring to light just how easy it is for a parent or significant other to fuck someone up for good, and how much value we place on those relationships. Kemper in particular spouts some terrifying rhetoric that would fit right in on any MRA message board. Without getting too much into it, it’s terrifying just how timely this 1970s period piece is.
While you were coining the term “serial killer,” I studied the blade
While the true crime inspirations are consistently spot on, the nods to police procedurals are a bit more hit and miss. It’s an interesting endeavor to translate the procedural—ubiquitous on cable TV—to the new binge format. Like most experiments, it sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. The first dip into “procedural” territory feels like a diversion, as if someone plopped a random rerun of LAW AND ORDER: SVU into the middle of a different show. Yet, MINDHUNTER excels when it implements elements from classic procedurals without completely sidetracking the investigation at hand. The “Majorette” case later in the series is a great example. It’s great to see Peak TV paying homage to this classic genre, as we seem to be moving away from the procedural altogether in lieu of more “high brow” television.
With exceptional writing, strong characters, timely themes, and a hint at the arrival of the ultimate sociopath serial killer, MINDHUNTER is a win on all counts. Whether you’re a true crime junkie, a Fincher fanatic, or just a person looking to watch something great on Netflix, this is a series that won’t disappoint.