Del reviews ‘Mindhunter’

Image courtesy of Netflix.

“Mindhunter” Starring Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, Hannah Gross and Anna Torv. Creator Joe Penhall. 10 one-hour episodes. Rated TV-MA. Netflix

Del’s take

Stephen King gave “Mindhunter” his seal of approval and Entertainment Weekly graded it at A-.

Me? I’m not so sure.

Season 1 of this Netflix original series features 10 one-hour episodes of fascinating detective work and nifty nostalgic music, cars and fashions from the late 1970s. It’s a good show; I’ll definitely check out Season 2. But is it a terrific show? That remains to be seen. In my opinion, it has a couple of problems that for now are keeping it from becoming the next “Breaking Bad.”

“Mindhunter” stars Jonathan Groff as rookie FBI agent Holden Ford, a callow young man who is new to the wiles of women and criminals. He yearns to get inside the brains of notorious killers, as he believes by questioning these men – and invariably they are men – he can find commonalities in their destructive behavior that may help predict who might be the next Charles Manson.

He is approached by fellow agent Bill Tench, an instructor who belongs to the bureau’s Behavorial Unit. Tench convinces Ford to join him in “road school,” a program by which a bureau operative visits police departments around the country, teaching investigators the latest in FBI criminal behavior theory.

Ford soon realizes his road school excursions allow him a unique opportunity – to visit nearby prisons warehousing notorious mass killers and interview them. He convinces Tench to go along and soon, the two are assembling a loose dataset of serial killer behavior.

Simultaneously, investigators with the police departments ask Tench and Ford’s help in solving local murders. Ford applies what he has learned from his insidious interview subjects and tries to solve the crimes with a skeptical and reluctant Tench in tow.

They are joined by a college professor (Torv) who tries to apply discipline to their information gathering techniques and collation. While all of this is being done under the presumptive purview of the agency, Tench and Ford’s boss back at Quantico, gruff Unit Chief Sheppard (Cotter Smith) in fact doesn’t know a damn thing about that’s happening. When he finds out he wants to pull the plug, but word gets out and grant money flows in, legitimizing Ford’s quest to hunt the minds of mass murderers.

Therein lies a new and dangerous problem. Can the wide-eyed, innocent Ford probe the depths of murderous insanity without becoming insane himself?

“Mindhunter” contains the DNA of both “Silence of the Lambs” and “The X-Files,” more the latter than former. Sure, they’re all about FBI agents solving mysteries. But it they all have the same look and feel, an institutional starched shirtiness if you will. Violence and gore are restrained, although the language is incredibly salty, including the C-word. And the things they talk about – whew! Suffice it to say this is not a show for children. Oh, and there’s a bit of sex, too. It seems young Mr. Ford is still working on his, shall we say, oral exams.

McCallany is sensational as the entrenched, dogmatic Tench. It is only when the camera focuses on his home life that he seems less than sure-footed, perhaps by design. Speaking of which, things are rocky at home, with an adopted child who shies away from him and won’t speak, to a wife contemplating divorce.

Ford’s girlfriend Debbie is smart, quick-witted, sardonically hilarious and played to perfection by Gross. Torv’s professor, Dr. Wendy Carr, is icily detached. She reveals only isolated glimpses of humanity – feeding an unseen cat in the laundry room of her apartment complex, or becoming enraged with Tench and snarling, “Fuck you, Bill.” If looks could kill, she would be a ninja assassin.

Then there’s Groff’s rendition of Ford. In the first few episodes he is portrayed as innocent and trusting. Surely this blank mold of a man could not emerge from the company of serial killers without somehow being shaped by them.

Suffice it to say by Episode 10 Ford has changed, and the transformation is dramatic. That’s one of the problems I have with “Mindhunter.” Ford’s evolution is hasty and to a large extent without foreshadowing. Along about Episode 7 I was asking myself, “What happened to him?”

And a nitpick if you will: Tench and Ford’s crime-solving abilities seem a tad suspect. In every case it is the local investigators who point them in the direction of the eventual suspect. Their role becomes one of tricking that person into confessing to the crime, which itself becomes a plot point and, I suppose, a device to symbolize the moral and ethical alchemy taking place within Ford.

Still, “Mindhunters” is a good series and well worth a watch. I expect its positive reception will result in a new season, and I’ll be interested to see where it goes.

One last kudo: Cameron Britton, who plays mass murderer Edmund Kemper, steals every scene he’s in. I could see a limited series constructed around him.

I grade “Mindhunter” a B.

Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.