When I saw the teaser for the new Netflix show Mindhunter, I was skeptical of yet another televised police procedural. I also wondered if following the historical origins of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit might be a bit boring. I've read the book that the show is based on, John E. Douglas's Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, and felt like there were probably already enough fictionalized characters based on Douglas (Jack Crawford from Silence of the Lambs, and Gideon and Rossi from Criminal Minds to name a few).
Boy was I totally wrong. Beyond the almost seductively noir cinematography and amazing acting, here are five reasons I absolutely love this show!
1. It's not dumbed down.
I love police procedural novels because of their complexity. They can ask hard questions about human nature while also telling gripping stories. I love me some Criminal Minds, but even I will admit they get repetitive and a little bit too much “killer of the week” sometimes.
Mindhunter avoids all of that by delving deep into hard questions about serial killers, including the two hardest questions of all:
- Should we try to see the humanity hiding beneath their depravity?
- What is the cost to the law enforcement officers trying to delve into their minds?
2. It asks why.
In addition to asking hard questions, Mindhunter also asks what I think is the most compelling question about serial killers: why do they do it? Are they mindless sacks of meat doing what their genetics and upbringing have programmed them to do? Or is there a choice within those boundaries?
Although the murders they investigate over this first season are gripping, I think the best part of Mindhunter is absolutely when the two FBI agents, Ford and Tench (based on John Douglas and Robert Ressler), are interviewing the killers. Those momentary windows into the darkest void possible within the human soul are viscerally awe-inspiring in their horror.
3. It shows why the social sciences matter.
I'm an anthropologist, but my background is in cultural neurobiology, which means I'm interested in behavior. How do our neurology, genetics, and upbringing influence how we act? To study that, we need the social sciences like psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Mindhunter seems to agree!
I literally almost cried when two characters discussed my favorite social philosopher, Emile Durkheim, over drinks (it's not strange that I have a favorite social philosopher, right…?). And then they brought in the theories of sociologist Erving Goffman, who studied the masks we all wear to project an image outward.
I love that this show trusts their audience enough to bring in some of these very abstract concepts and show how they influenced the FBI as they sought to understand serial murder.
4. It features strong women.
I love the women of Mindhunter (more screen time for them next season please!).
Holden Ford's girlfriend, Debbie Mitford (played by Hannah Gross), is fantastic. She's a no-nonsense sociology student who directly contributes to Ford’s work by explaining sociology to him. She also takes Ford to task when he gets too caught up in the world he's exploring.
Although Ford and Tench are the main characters, we also get to meet Dr. Wendy Carr (based on Dr. Ann Wolbert Burgess) and see the role that she played in developing a typology of serial killers. The real Dr. Burgess is a pioneer in the field of forensic nursing and has dedicated her life to helping rape victims.
5. Big Ed
Seriously, Cameron Britton as the real-life serial killer Ed Kemper is the show stealer here. All of the actors are fantastic, but every time Big Ed is on the screen, it's like watching a natural disaster unfold, disturbing and riveting in equal measure. I enjoyed the first episode, but when we meet Big Ed in the second episode is when I knew I was hooked.
So, that's my list. What do you all think of Mindhunter?
Ellison Cooper has a Ph.D. in anthropology from UCLA, with a background in archaeology, cultural neuroscience, ancient religion, colonialism, and human rights. She has conducted fieldwork in Central America, West Africa, Micronesia, and Western Europe. She has worked as a murder investigator in Washington DC, and is a certified K9 Search and Rescue Federal Disaster Worker. She now lives in the Bay Area with her husband and son.