Crime drama series’ have traditionally been a convenient staple of television. What I mean by that is there have been countless procedurals, it’s easy entertainment, and people will always be fascinated by crime. There’s a reason why Law & Order has reached 1000 seasons, and 300 spin-offs (numbers not accurate but go with it). More recently, its reached a point of saturation. With the exception to an extraordinary few (i.e. The Wire, Breaking Bad, first season of True Detective), think of the average prime-time crime series’ as the McDonalds of television. Sure, you’ll always get a base satisfaction from it, but it’s not winning any awards, and there definitely isn’t anything masterful about it. But every once in a while, something that goes above and beyond from the convenient comes along, and you just have to write an article about it.
Created by Joe Penhall, and produced by the unparalleled David Fincher himself (Fight Club, Seven, Gone Girl, House of Cards), Mindhunter follows FBI Agents Holden Ford and Bill Tench in the early, formative days of criminal psychology and profiling. The formative days before serial killers were in the common vernacular (at one point the term “sequential killer” is tested by Agent Ford), and before there was any assumption that a criminal could be anything anything beyond a deviant. Based on actual events as detailed in the true crime book, Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, we see our protagonists interact with noted serial killers in history in an oddly humanizing light.
What’s refreshing about Mindhunter as a series largely involves its self-inflicted handicap of being limited to the era, and in turn, source material, as well as having a foot of authenticity firmly planted into reality. In a world where we have shows like Criminal Minds, criminal investigation of serial killers are presented as a corny parody of itself, a Swiss cheese block of cliches if you will. It’s rare to see something so controlled and slow-burning in terms of the writing. By tying its own arm behind its back, Mindhunter achieves something more nuanced and richer in story. Focus is pulled towards people searching for answers, and the subsequent impact of that search. There’s a discipline within it all because there isn’t any 21st century deus ex machina of facial recognition technology, or impossibly quick DNA scans. And that’s how not only good television is made, that’s how good criminal investigation is carried out. With due process and careful thought.
In terms of authenticity, issues are never resolved with fast-paced gunplay or instant takedowns without ever any consideration for legal ramifications. Actions have consequences, characters are forced to justify their actions, then come to terms with working around the consequences. As in the real world, there is a heavy emphasis of cause and effect. It also nicely avoided the pitfalls of an era-specific setting. Rather than patting itself on the back with a wink to the audience about hindsight being 20/20, and how obvious things are now, it was all very matter of fact, and never directly referenced. From personal experience, this was only executed as well by Mad Men. And for you fellow criminology graduates out there like yours truly, you’ll get a kick out of hearing people talk about the theories of Durkheim and Beccaria, which face it– we thought we’d never encounter again out in the open world.
Mindhunter has started off in very promising fashion. Hopefully, the degree of self-discipline and authenticity will be sustained for the seasons to come. With what has been demonstrated by the talent both in front and behind the camera, there are very few doubts regarding the quality of future episodes. And I for one cannot wait to see where they choose to go next.