“You want truffles? You gotta get in the dirt with the pigs.”
Those are the words Special Agent Holden Ford uses to justify his work: interviewing serial killers to understand how they think. The new Netflix series, “Mindhunter,” does uncover a few truffles here and there, but not without kicking up some dirt along the way.
Based on John Douglas’s true crime book “Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit,” Netflix’s latest drama travels back to 1977, when criminal profiling and criminal psychology were just beginning to take hold. The show’s main characters and their experiences are based on Douglas’ time with the Bureau where he questioned notorious criminals like Charles Manson, Ted Bundy and James Earl Ray.
“Glee’s” Jonathan Groff stars as the aforementioned Holden Ford, an agent in the Bureau’s Behavioral Science Unit whose unconventional approach to law enforcement and general awkwardness often lead him into trouble. Holt McCallany plays his rough-around-the-edges but ultimately good-natured partner Bill Tensch. Together, they interview imprisoned murderers to gain insight into their minds and behaviors so that they can apply their findings to solve future crimes. The two actors riff well off each other; there is an enjoyable “buddy cop-esque” element to their relationship that adds some much-needed levity to the dour show — though on occasion, the humor can be overbearing and a touch out of place.
Hannah Gross and “Fringe’s” Anna Torv round out the main cast, playing Holden’s girlfriend Debbie and psychologist Dr. Wendy Carr, respectively. The actresses do a good enough job with the material, but the characters themselves are a tad underwritten, and are often reduced to reactionary set pieces rather than full-fledged agents of change.
After a somewhat shaky pilot episode, the show begins to pick up, but it never truly finds its footing. For one, the minds behind “Mindhunter” cannot seem to figure out if they want the show to be a procedural or serialized drama. The series tries to balance “case of the week” stories and full season arcs, and ultimately, it is not always able to maintain that balance.
The show’s concept — its serial killer “craze” — is far from original; Douglas’ work has already spawned numerous books, TV shows and movies, from “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Red Dragon” to shows like “Hannibal” and “Criminal Minds.”
“Mindhunter” does, however, offer a more nuanced or realistic perspective than many of its predecessors; the show rarely veers into action-filled, slasher-like suspense. Instead, “Mindhunter” is far more concerned with uncovering the details and difficulties of criminal psychology, with all the accompanying social, moral and bureaucratic uncertainties. At times, this attention to detail and adherence to reality can be tiring, meandering even, but to some extent it is understandable. Despite some fictionalizations, “Mindhunter” sets out to tell a truth, and that truth does not always culminate in nerve-inducing standoffs or chase scenes.
That is not to say that “Mindhunter” is lacking in excitement. In fact, the show excels at creating suspense in the tiniest moments, in mundane car rides and family-filled kitchens. We can attribute much of this success to executive producer and director David Fincher, who carries his tense, intimate style to four of the 10 episodes. The interviews and interrogations of the killers are downright chilling through the dialogue alone.
Still, “Mindhunter” is a worthy watch for any fans of the crime genre. The 10-episode season was released Oct. 13 on Netflix, and the series was renewed for a second season before it even aired.