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‘Mindhunter’: Why David Fincher’s Return to Netflix Could Be More Significant Than ‘House of Cards’

David Fincher helped make Netflix into an awards powerhouse, and his return could complete the streaming giant's grand plan that began with "House of Cards."

MINDHUNTER Episode 2 Netflix Jonathan Groff


Patrick Harbron/Netflix

Mindhunter” is nothing like “House of Cards.”

“Mindhunter,” adapted from a novel by Mark Olshaker and John E. Douglas, is set in 1979 and follows two FBI agents, played by Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany, who are tasked with understanding the fractured psyches of serial killers in order to crack existing investigations and prevent future murders.

“House of Cards,” adapted from a British TV series by Andrew Davies, is set in the modern day and follows two married politicians, played by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, whose quest for power in Washington D.C. takes them to unexpected extremes.

Save for David Fincher’s involvement and their distribution platform, the trailer for “Mindhunter” doesn’t look anything like “House of Cards.”

Except, of course, it does: It looks exactly like “House of Cards” — literally. The sharp, clean contrast; the blue and gray color palette; the shadows and silhouettes. “Mindhunter” looks like “House of Cards” because both were designed by David Fincher.

But that’s not the only connection Netflix is hoping audiences make between the two originals. Netflix made a name for itself in the originals game with “House of Cards,” and the one-two punch of prestige came with the names Kevin Spacey and David Fincher. Spacey is still going strong on the Emmy-nominated drama series, but Fincher has been a producer in name only for years. Now, he’s reinvesting in a new series, and Netflix is counting on his name to drive interest in a story that should be very friendly to Fincher fans.

The book on which “Mindhunter” is based comes from a real-life FBI agent, who developed criminal profiling techniques for the FBI. “Zodiac,” Fincher’s critically-acclaimed 2007 film, was based on Robert Graysmith’s real-life experience tracking the Zodiac killer. Both projects are set in the ’70s (with “Zodiac” starting in the ’60s) and both try to understand the vicious, unknowable minds of mass murderers.

MINDHUNTER Episode 3 Netflix Cameron Britton, Jonathan Groff

Similarly, Fincher’s breakout 1995 film, “Se7en,” followed two detectives tracking a serial killer played by Kevin Spacey. William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and David Mills (Brad Pitt) were obsessive in their pursuit, as we came to understand John Doe’s complex motivations for punishing those who violated the seven deadly sins.

Fincher has made a career out of chronicling individuals who hunt killers while trying to understand them. (Even “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” deals with similar elements.) His fans know and love what he’s done with period settings, true stories, and how his visual language plays up the tension in these chilling tales.

“Mindhunter” is almost too perfect a fit for Fincher and Netflix. Knowing what little we do about the algorithm touted for spawning the service’s successful originals, it would come as no surprise if the show was picked up because of internal Netflix numbers or pure instinct on Fincher’s part. It’s a match made in heaven for all parties involved. (At the time of publication, “Zodiac” is even available to stream on Netflix.)

Be it coincidence or the mysterious work of Netflix’s algorithm, the series feels tailor-made for anyone interested in Fincher. That very same appeal drew enough eyeballs to make “House of Cards” an instant Emmy contender, earning an Emmy win for Fincher in the first season, a nomination for Outstanding Drama Series, and a Golden Globe award for Robin Wright.

Since then, “House of Cards” has become an awards season mainstay. In total, it’s racked up 52 Emmy nominations in five seasons, including six in 2017 (which include a nod for Outstanding Drama Series). Many didn’t expect that to happen this year; “House of Cards” was suspected to be on the downswing, as its yearly nomination total dipped year-to-year. It dipped again, but it held onto major nominations like drama series, actor, and actress.

Meanwhile, a flood of other Netflix shows have bolstered the streaming service’s bounty. It skyrocketed from 54 nods in 2016 to 91 in 2017. That’s unprecedented growth for Netflix, and a number that puts it within spitting distance of the long-reigning Emmys king, HBO.

If trends continue, “House of Cards” may be on the outs come 2017. With “Game of Thrones” back in the game for HBO, and the well-performing “Westworld’s” release date still up in the air, Netflix needs another show (or two) if it wants to finally surpass the premium cable network in total Emmy nods.

That kind of cultural signifier would be a massive boon for Netflix in terms of restoring a slightly damaged drama brand. Its status as an original content creator has dipped as it’s expanded into more and more shows, but “Mindhunter” could restore some of its former glory. The new series could do more than replace “House of Cards” as an immediate and long-term awards darling; it could reinvigorate Netflix’s prestige.

If all goes according to plan, come October 13, David Fincher could be passing the torch to himself. Not only that, by this time next year, he may have handed Netflix the first and final piece of its plan to become the most dominant and significant original content provider on the planet.

That is, assuming “Mindhunter” is any good. No pressure.

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