'Mindhunter' Trades Predictable Forensics for Murky Psychology


In all fairness to cop shows, they have never promised to be profound in any way. The grizzled veteran beat cop and the naïve insurgent rookie are well trodden tropes that provide for brisk and clean half hour entertainment with no further expectations.

Yet Netflix’s latest original series, Mindhunter, has managed to inject psychological insight into its meat and potatoes duo of FBI Special Agents Holden Ford and Bill Tench in lieu of hyperbolic and pseudo-scientific forensics. Played by Jonathan Groff of Hamilton and Holt McCallany, respectively, the pair evade the easy fixes of forensics that plague modern variations of Law and Order and CSI,  instead delving into the murky abyss of deviant psychology. This psychological deviance takes the viewer through a sort of blindness in the early phases of the science in the 1970s that feels more like a game of Marco Polo with Emile Durkheim and Foucault than a straight forward connect-four game with the sunglasses guy from CSI: Miami.

Make no mistake, however, in thinking this is simply mansplaining of criminal psychology disguised as a serious period piece. Crucial to the show is lead actress Anna Torv, veiling her Australian accent as Dr. Wendy Carr, a psychology professor from Harvard who takes the run and gun instincts of Holden and Bill to new heights in the form of a rigorous study of serial killers—a term not yet coined at the onset of the show.

Wendy is light-years ahead of the sausage-fest bureaucracy of the post-Hoover FBI, having to put up with an ignorant stigma of psychology and a gut-level disdain for criminals whose testimonies behind bars can help solve cases and even present the ethically dubious possibility of allowing agents to prevent crimes by identifying symptomatic behaviors, such as animal cruelty or even tickling.

Shining brightly under Wendy’s guidance is Holden, whose first name indicates quite clearly his iconoclastic intolerance to phonies. Holden, ostensibly the show’s hero, has an empathy for criminals and a manipulative interlocution technique that make cops hate him, murderers love him, and frankly drive his equally perceptive girlfriend crazy.

While the show may have its corny and predetermined moments, its fidelity to the struggle of developing psychology as a thorough science makes this an innovative show that deserves credit for taking the treatment of mental health further in television, following disparate precursors like The Sopranos and BoJack Horseman. Holden’s increasing arrogance may make you want to strangle him like one of his murderous subjects would fancy, but the chemistry between his intuitive idealism along with the skeptical gruff of Bill and the clairvoyant poise of Wendy makes Mindhunter a show worth binge-watching.

Jake Lahut