'Mindhunter' is the crime show TV was missing

Netflix's latest original quietly reinvents the detective show genre

Promotion for Mindhunter.
Credit: 
Screenshot from Netflix

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a quietly released new Netflix show entitled Mindhunter. 

After a quick glance, I spotted its gloomy lighting, renowned list of producers and a mostly-unknown cast list. All I knew was I liked the general crime genre, and Netflix originals aren’t known to disappoint.

Although slightly worried I was about to jump into a copy of every other police show ever, I decided to give it a shot. Luckily, Mindhunter’s high production value and unique focus on criminal behavioural science makes it feel more like Criminal Minds’ classy older sibling than a rip-off of any other typical crime TV show plotline.

Mindhunter is a crime drama series produced by Gone Girl’s David Fincher and Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron. The series is a semi-fictional account of the beginning of criminal profiling at the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit. Mindhunter follows the characters of FBI behavioural scientists Holden Ford and Bill Tench, played by Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany respectively, as they travel around the country teaching police officers various negotiation tactics.

Or at least that’s how it starts.

Ford and Tench soon begin visiting infamous real-life “serial killers” — a term they coin over the course of the series — in prison. Some crime lords they run into include Ed Kemper, Jerry Brudos and Richard Speck. They use their interviews to learn about the motivations behind the killers, utilizing this information to categorize various types of criminals and begin the now-common science of criminal profiling.

Having spent my formative years watching episode after episode of Criminal Minds, Law & Order: SVU and every iteration of CSI, it’s needless to say I set impossibly high expectations when it comes to crime TV. Luckily, Mindhunter exceeded these, taking its rightful place in the Netflix original Hall of Fame.

The series unfolds like one long movie, making it dangerously binge-able. Each episode devotes time to Ford and Tench’s day-to-day work helping local police districts solve crime, their interviews with serial killers and their personal lives and relationships. On most shows, this amount of plot crammed into an hour would feel hectic, but somehow Mindhunter makes it work.

Rather than exploiting the shock value of the material, Mindhunter mimics the utterly normal ambience of its characters functioning in a typical workplace. Most episodes feature the main cast having seemingly-normal conversations with a convict as they describe the crimes they’ve committed in gruesome detail. 

The special ingredient separating Mindhunter from all other police shows is its sense of truth. While shows like Criminal Minds rely on increasingly bizarre murders and special agents throwing around unrealistic technical terms, Mindhunter uses completely average people and real-life murders to sustain itself.

The show also excels in its depictions of the characters’ personal lives and relationships. All of these elements culminate in the finale, which includes crumbling relationships, a near-death experience and a suspenseful cliffhanger opening the possibility of future episodes.

Police shows today are typically forced to rely on flashy guest stars, disturbingly creative murder plots and dramatic reveals to capture a bored audience’s attention. Yet somehow, Mindhunter thrives with its lowkey cast, true-to-life stories and slow-burning plot as its foundation. It’s refreshing to see a crime show which trusts its audience to keep watching, unlike maturing crime shows today that resort to throwing random hijinks at its audience in an attempt to keep them entertained.

As someone who’s always been fascinated by Criminal Minds’ use of behavioural psychology but has grown tired of its wacky storylines, Mindhunter is the perfect solution to an aging television genre. 

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