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Mindhunter review – like Mad Men, with added serial killers

Jonathan Groff (right) plays Holden Ford in Mindhunter.
Jonathan Groff (right) plays Holden Ford in Mindhunter. Photograph: Patrick Harbron/AP

What is it? It’s the Masters of Sex of murdering.

Why you’ll love it: John Douglas is one of the most influential crimefighters ever. An FBI sniper turned hostage negotiator, he is the man responsible for bringing criminal profiling to the bureau. He spent his life interviewing serial killers – before “serial killer” was even a term – to gauge their motives; not only to figure out why they did what they did, but why they did it the way they did. By allowing himself to understand these monsters, by mentally submerging himself as both victim and perpetrator, Douglas forged a groundbreaking way of crimefighting that is still used around the world. If you have seen The Silence of the Lambs or Hannibal, you will recognise Jack Crawford and Will Graham as cyphers for Douglas.

Mindhunter is the story of John Douglas. Well, it is and it isn’t.

Douglas is nowhere to be found in this new David Fincher-directed series, based on Douglas’s 1995 book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit. It is a show about his work, about a man from the late-70s who upends the FBI with cutting-edge sociological theory. Only here, the man’s name is Holden Ford (played by Jonathan Groff).

Ford is awakened to the potential for psychology as a tool by a screening of Dog Day Afternoon, of all things. He meets a woman, enjoys a long talk with her about labelling theory, watches Al Pacino shout “Attica!” at some strangers and, suddenly, his new worldview clicks into place; maybe the key to catching criminals is understanding them. Before you know it, he is neck-deep in strife; it turns out that asking a roomful of law-enforcement grunts to empathise with Charles Manson is not the expressway to victory he expected.

If you are after a whizz-bang cop show, Mindhunter – despite sounding like a Steven Seagal action film from 1997 – is not for you. The biggest visceral thrill of either preview episode made available to me happens when a hostage situation takes a turn. Outside of that, this is very firmly a TV programme about discussion. Men in diners talking. Men in offices talking. Men in prisons talking. There are real-life serial killers in Mindhunter, but so far they are limited to Edmund Kemper, the so-called Co-ed killer who murdered his grandparents and several young women in the 1960s and 70s before giving himself over to the police after apparently getting bored with outsmarting them. Even then, we aren’t seeing Kemper the killer, but Kemper the listless detainee, offering up a range of psychological motives for the things he did in the hope of wangling his way into a position of relative authority. In Mindhunter, even the murderers are talkers.

All of which makes sense. After all, Mindhunter the book is basically a how-to guide for the implementation of systemic institutional change based on abstract theory, so the show should follow suit. Two episodes in, and it looks set to be more of a satisfying Mad Men slow-burn than anything else. If you have the time and patience to sit back and discover the men behind the monsters, it may reward you in spades.

Where: Netflix.

Length: Ten hour-long episodes, all available to watch now.

Standout episode: Of the two I’ve been allowed to see, the first is the most outstanding, due purely to the confident languidness of its exposition.

If you liked Mindhunter, watch: Masters of Sex (Amazon), Hannibal (Netflix).

This article titled "Mindhunter review – like Mad Men, with added serial killers" was written by Stuart Heritage, for The Guardian on Friday 13 October 2017 05.00am

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