When I tell someone about a new Netflix series I’m watching, I often get the same response “Oh, It’s a Netflix show? I need to watch that, their stuff is so good!” More than any other studio, when Netflix has a new show, people take notice. David Fincher, the man behind Netflix’s very first original series, House of Cards – the man who forever changed the way we define the word “binge” – is back with another Netflix Original. One that hopes to be added to their ever growing list of amazing content. This show definitely isn’t for everyone, but if you like dark, twisted, intense thrillers, then Netflix has a show for you.
This series follows a crew of FBI agents in the 1970’s, and how their work forever changed the way we view crime. These aren’t just detectives sleuthing out criminals —although, there is a good bit of crime solving that occurs. Rather, they’re researchers, diving into the human psyche trying to unlock what makes the worst of the worst tick. There’s a perfect balance between the crime and journalism aspects, one that only the Netflix model can provide. If told as a two hour film, not a 10 hour season, cuts would have been made that would have negatively impacted the story. If it were all interviews and theory, the audience would be bored to tears. If it were just another show about tracking down serial killers, it wouldn’t have enough to be set apart.
The man behind this perfect tone, David Fincher, really comes to play. Many times when a high profile director attaches his name to a series, what that really means is that they had lunch with the show runners once, and collected two million dollars for their name (I’m looking at you Bryan Singer). Not Fincher, as his fingerprints are all over this show. The pacing, the perverse cynicism, the dark eerie feeling that you can’t quite seem to shake; its all there. The clearest sign of these “Fincherisms” is when we cut to a character saying “I would say making furniture from human remains qualifies as organized,” right as the scene starts. It was a blink-and-you’ll-miss moment, but it speaks so clearly to Fincher’s sensibilities.
My favorite aspect that Fincher brings along is the unique way he shoots things. Fincher and Director of Photography Erik Messerschmidt are able to create such clear atmosphere through the framing and lighting in ways I’ve never seen on television. While I wasn’t in many prison conference rooms in the seventies, I’m sure not all of them were as dank and poorly lit as this show paints them to be. Even though it may not reflect reality, it reflected how the characters felt. When you’re sitting across from a serial killer who raped and murdered numerous people, it doesn’t matter how well lit the room is; you’re going to feel gross. Fincher and Messerschmidt were able to convey this all through lighting and shot selection. I cannot stress enough the impressive, beautiful work they’ve done here.
Johnathan Groff, Holt McCallany, and Anna Torv play the three members of the newly formed Behavioral Science Unit. While each gives a strong performance – especially McCallany – the series thrives on their incredible chemistry. Groff plays the young, eager agent, McCallany, the conservative vet, and Torv, the academic voice of reason. The way the show fleshes out each character and plays them off one another is fantastic to watch. Each character brings something out in another, and all three approach new challenges differently. Each are distinctly unique, without ever slipping into cliché territory. This show is at its best when these three are in a room together planning their next steps.
While each lead gives a strong performance, the actor who stands above the rest is Cameron Britton. Britton plays the first and most prominent of the serial killer interviewees, and steals every scene he’s in. Every second he’s on screen, there’s an uncategorizable sense of dread. He never does anything to directly put others in danger, and, even when describing the most gruesome of crimes he’s committed, delivers the details with a matter-of-fact sincerity. Yet, in every movement, in every word of dialogue, you can sense a terrifying darkness lurking just beneath the surface. Britton’s a relative unknown before this series, but after his performance, I don’t see his amateur status lasting very long.
Britton, along with everyone else’s performances, are supported by truly strong writing. Ten episodes really is the perfect length of time for this series, as each chapter is able to successfully tells its own story, all while pushing the overarching plot further along. This series has note-perfect pacing, and it’s reflected in almost every aspect. The interrogation rooms get dirtier, the costumes get darker, the visuals shift from a golden shine to mostly dark greens and browns. Across the board, each part of this show is operating in lock step with the others, driving its central story forward.
That being said, Mindhunter has one of the least gripping pilots I’ve ever seen. When I first sat down to watch, a friend and I planned on binging as much as we could before passing out. After the first episode, we looked at each other wondering if it was even worth a second episode. It’s so strange that the worst episode of the series is also one of the few directed by David Fincher. Like I mentioned above, I was worried Fincher simply signed his name and cashed a paycheck. Luckily, the show redeems itself with the remaining episodes, and Fincher delivers two masterful closing chapters.
If there’s anything that didn’t work for me, it’s how the show handles its female characters. Hannah Gross plays the love interest for Groff’s character, and even though she gives a fine performance, I never understood why she was there. She didn’t help develop Holden in any significant way, and she wasn’t given enough screen time to step out of the romantic box that the show puts her in. Anna Torv is predictably great, but again, she isn’t given enough to do. It’s surprising since Fincher is a creator who knows how to properly handle female characters.
My last gripe is more with Netflix as a whole. Over the last year, I’ve started to notice a trend in almost every series I’ve seen from them, and it’s becoming more and more noticeable. They’ll have an incredible first season, and instead of wrapping up all of the story lines, they drag plot points out to create intrigue for a second season. If Netflix wants to give their shows cliffhangers, that’s fine, I’m all for it. What I’m not all for is telling an incomplete story so that they can justify a second season. If they make a good show, which they’ve done with Mindhunter, people will watch however many seasons they give us. If the end of your season is just set up for the next, it completely undermines the work that’s come before.
Mindhunter is yet another impressive outing from a studio that knows exactly what they’re doing. This isn’t quite on the level of a premiere series like The Crown or Master of None, but it’s the type of solid base hit that’ll find its audience, and gain a cult following. This show isn’t for everyone, and I certainly won’t be recommending it to my mother anytime soon. But if you’re a fan of Fincher’s past work, or are in the mood for a smart, well made thriller, Mindhunter is definitely worth your time.
Rating: 3.8 — Really Good
Best Episode: “Chapter Seven”