Alibi V.26 No.42 • Oct 19-25, 2017 

Idiot Box

Chatting with Killers

“Mindhunter” on Netflix

Writer-director-producer David Fincher is no stranger to serial killers, having helmed such cinematic slayers as Se7en and Zodiac. And television has been cultivating a love of serial killers for some time now—from “Dexter” to “Hannibal” to “The Following” to “Aquarius” to any number of Scandinavian detective shows. So it seems like a marriage made in Heaven (or maybe Hell) to have Fincher adapting John Douglas and Mark Olshaker’s real-life memoir Mindhunter: Inside the F.B.I.’s Elite Serial Crime Unit for Netflix.

The show is written by British playwright Joe Penhall and Texas playwright Jennifer Haley, who do a commendable job of translating Douglas and Olshaker’s wordy procedural work. The show takes us back to 1977, the year David Berkowitz was arrested for the shocking Son of Sam murders in New York. FBI hostage negotiator Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff, “Looking”) is starting to notice a disturbing trend. “The world barely makes any sense,” he says of post-Manson, post-Watergate, post-Vietnam America. “So it follows that crime doesn’t either.”

Clearly, old-school, rational crime-fighting methods are not appropriate for catching this new generation of psychotic murderers dubbed “serial killers.” Looking for a better way, Ford digs into the field of sociology and finds behavioral-science specialist Bill Tench (Holt McCallany from “CSI: Miami”). Together these mismatched partners—Ford is the antisocial straight arrow, Tench the intellectual skeptic—crisscross the country interviewing baffled cops and creepy convicts.

Since it doesn’t focus much on active crimes—it’s not Ford and Tench’s job to hunt down these killers—“Mindhunter” isn’t particularly gory or action-packed. That isn’t to say, however, that it lacks grisly thrills. One early encounter with “The Co-Ed Killer” (a real-life murderer played here by Cameron Britton) is unsettling for the open, matter-of-fact way in which he discusses his horrendous crimes. Academic as it can be, the show has a sly sense of black humor—as the well-timed use of the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” can attest.

Some may find the show a bit too chatty, and it does take getting past the first episode for things to click into place. Once our protagonists start going face-to-face with killers, though, the show has a sneaky, edgy thrill. This isn’t about chasing mysterious clues and stopping murderers before they kill again—it’s about understanding what makes them tick. The compelling concept of the show is that the world is going to Hell in a hand basket, and criminals are just keeping up with the times. The chilling and occasionally funny conclusion is that maybe they’re not all that different from the rest of us.

Season 1 of “Mindhunter” is available now for streaming on Netflix.