It takes two hours for “Mindhunter” to get to the sentence that explains its raison d’être. “How do we get ahead of crazy if we don’t know how crazy thinks?” asks Bill Tench (Holt McCallany). It’s 1977; serial killers aren’t even called that yet. Bill and his partner Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) are trying to justify to their boss why they want to have multiple intimate conversations about horrific acts with Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton). Kemper is a real-life serial killer; in addition to murdering several mostly female victims, he killed his mom and then engaged in necrophilia with her corpse. And Bill and Holden are based on real-life FBI agents: Robert Ressler and John E. Douglas, two early criminal profilers who worked a new kind of murder cropping up all over the nation.
This is to say that while “Mindhunter” is yet another serial killer drama, it’s one with an intriguing angle. The emphasis isn’t on finding a killer; it’s on institutional reform. In 1977, the FBI is skeptical of psychology, deeming it effete and nerdy. When Bill and Holden try to teach police officers around the country about the why behind murders, officers react defensively: Who cares why, when the bad guy is clearly a bad guy?
And to a degree, anyway, these resistant officers have a point. Bill and Holden are extending empathy to some very scary characters. The title sequence reflects this ambiguity with an almost subliminal message: As a pair of hands carefully sets up a ‘70s era audio recorder, a series of grisly stills from a murder scene flash in and out, a couple frames at a time, undercutting the neat and technical task with nearly unimaginable horror underneath.
That unsettling aftertaste is likely the contribution of executive producer and director David Fincher, who offers his sterile framing and muted color palette to the series, too. (Fincher directed the first two episodes, but does not direct the whole series.) But Groff has a winning, earnest quality that is entirely at odds with Fincher’s merciless lens, making for an effect that is sometimes intriguing and sometimes merely incongruous. The show struggles to make Holden make sense — which makes for a slow, rocky start through his career woes and love life. Though the pilot’s tone is an intriguing combination of wry humor and ‘70s noir, it’s otherwise a slog of exposition and painfully on-the-nose scene-setting. (The song selection is so appropriate, both in terms of era and theme, that at first I assumed it was ironic.)
Things pick up considerably as soon as McCallany’s Bill appears in Holden’s life; his gruff, seasoned curiosity balances out the younger man’s enthusiasm. And the second episode features a couple of moments that have more dynamism than the rest of the show put together — a precise montage of being a business traveler in 1977, and Britton’s performance as the serial killer Kemper, who is both jovial and terrifying in equal measure. Free of the constraints of exposition, “Mindhunter” is able to enjoy how parodically self-important these FBI agents can be — and how silly their aversion to psychology is. And when these relatively normal humans are put face-to-face with monsters like Kemper, their shock and horror — combined with a genuine desire to understand — stands in for the viewing audience’s long-lived fascination with serial killers. There is a subtle, buried thread of “Mindhunter” that is curious about our collective fascination with these murderers, and when that surfaces, the show approaches brilliance. Even the opening chords of the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” can’t disturb the mood.
It’s also striking, at times, to find unexpected parallels to our own era. Bill and Holden make a little slideshow about motive to show police officers — and motive, with its “whys” and “whos,” is an ongoing question with the spate of mass shootings and terror attacks that characterize so much violence today. “We don’t know anymore what moves people to kill each other,” Holden says. His companion (Jordan Gelber) describes the “unprecedented events” of recent history that might be affecting the national consciousness. Watergate, Vietnam, Kent State… “You can hardly wrap your mind around it. Our democracy is vanishing, into… what?” Holden asks: “Is that what all of this is about? A response to turmoil?” The two men look at each other and shrug. They have no idea.