It’s no spoiler to say the second episode of “Mindhunter” ends with “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads. And considering the focus of hour No. 2 was a serial killer who had sex with his victims’ heads, well, that’s a pretty funny way to wrap two scene-setting hours of television.
David Fincher’s return to Netflix, after putting its originals program on the map with “House of Cards,” isn’t as consistently uproarious as its second hour kicker implies, but the fictionalized story of criminal profiling’s birth does have a dark sense of humor to match its grim, academic nature. Fincher and creator Joe Penhall have crafted a markedly talky original series that shouldn’t work at all — not really. Through two of the first 10 episodes, it’s unclear what kind of long-term potential “Mindhunter” has beyond the morbidly fascinating conversations between analysts and murderers. But its mission is pure, aesthetic outstanding, and hook undeniable.
Imagine the scene in “Zodiac” where Arthur Leigh Allen (played by John Carrol Lynch) sits down with detectives to answer questions about the killings. Then pretend Leigh, as he prefers to be called, is the Zodiac killer. There’s no question that he did it. He’s been convicted, and he’s already in prison. All the apprehension over whether or not he’s the guy, let alone if he’ll get away and kill again, is gone. He’s just a tall, middle-aged man with a few unnerving quirks who’s doing time and talking to the cops.
Wouldn’t that be kind of funny?
OK, OK. It would still be disconcerting, but remember when Sgt. Jack Mulanax (Elias Koteas) gave Leigh a look after the big blue collar worker effeminately crossed his legs? Certainly, this moment is intended as a humorous beat, if not the inducement of a tension-breaking giggle-fit, and that nerve-tingling spark is what “Mindhunter” chases.
Fincher’s series does so in large part because it’s absent the primary hook of most serial killer stories: the chase. “Mindhunter” follows FBI Agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), a hostage negotiator and teacher who wants to find new methods of communication with suspects. The first scene of the show sets a simple mission statement, and the clunky, overextended pilot reemphasizes the point again and again: Holden wants to help, even if he doesn’t know how.
His quest leads him into a psychological realm most of his fellow agents aren’t comfortable with; they don’t want to empathize with “monsters,” let alone consider that any “normal” person could be capable of that kind of evil. But an array of atypical events — the Manson murders, JFK’s assassination, Vietnam — has them questioning how the FBI assigns logic to society. “The world barely makes sense, so it follows that crime doesn’t either.”
Soon, Holden meets Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), who’s part of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. Tench travels around the United States, talking to local agencies who are dealing with extreme cases. They’re officially trying to teach America’s police force the advanced methods utilized by the FBI, but they’re always on the lookout for something off-book. They want to learn as much as they want to teach, and that’s what gets Holden involved.