Almost every police-procedural drama on television can trace an outline that's as familiar and recognisable as the chalking over a dead body in a crime scene - whether it's a tough, seasoned cop mixed with an eager rookie, a hard-ass chief, and a grimy florescent light hanging in the middle of a cloud of cigarette smoke.
Mindhunter opens in 1977, at the tail end of the counterculture movement with the distaste and distrust of the establishment - specifically, the FBI - apparent to anyone and everyone. From the opening episode, Special Agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) is portrayed as a steadfast, uncompromising nerd who carries a briefcase and wears an impeccably ironed shirt and tie - all in comparison to Special Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and his more free-wheeling, hospitable approach. How both characters are introduced speaks volumes to the later episodes, and works as a microcosm for the show.
The opening episode sees Ford trying to use psychology to talk down a hostage-taker, only for it to go horribly wrong and resulting in a graphic end to the scenario. Though he wears an FBI windbreaker, he looks out of place and inexperienced, but knows that he's on to something. Tench, meanwhile, is introduced in a cafeteria, smoking a cigarette and utterly at ease with himself and his surroundings. Hench's pet project involves interviewing violent convicts for his Behavioural Science Unit with the hope that it can have a real-world application for identifying, codifying and preventing potential killing sprees like Charles Manson or Richard Speck.
As with all David Fincher projects (he directed the opening two and final two episodes of the series), there's a certain sterility to the proceedings and a heavy leaning on established tropes, almost to the point of cliche. Tench and Ford interact with each other like every other rookie-and-experienced cop duo you can think of. It's only when Dr. Wendy Carr (Australian actress Anna Torv), a psychologist whom Tench has consulted with in the past, that the dynamic begins to shift somewhat. Throughout the season, Carr is the voice of logic and reason in comparison with Tench's yearning for practicality and Ford's borderline-creepy fascination with the interview subjects. It's an interesting choice, particularly as most crime procedurals like this rarely feature women in a position of authority, much less one that isn't made overtly sexual or as a victim herself.
There's a certain stiffness to how each character and interview plays out, but it's something that you'd expect from a Fincher project. It can either be described as stately or robotic, but it's distinctly his and it works for Mindhunter. The painfully neat offices, the crisp lines and perfectly placed camera angles are reminiscent of Se7en and Zodiac - but it's just a shame that the overarching narrative doesn't blend together quite as well. In a lot of ways, Mindhunter works like Law & Order: SVU - in that it's episodic and not serialised.
Out of the ten episodes of the first season, a new subject is introduced every other episode that they'll interview which, in turn, informs a local police investigation they've been asked to work on. A lot of dialogue - particularly in the early episodes - reeks of your typical hard-boiled detective speak. One particularly egregious example involves a haggard-looking detective literally saying, "What people won't do to each other?" as he looks over a case file with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth between slurps of coffee.
Despite all this, Mindhunter's visual palette works to elevate it into something cinematic and Fincher's distinctive style carries through the whole season. The way in which the series drills down into Tench, Ford and Carr makes it a fascinating watch, and the very nature of the show - unearthing the psychology behind serial killers - is exactly the kind of thing that makes for an engaged audience.
It might not be as unique and special as you'd have hoped, but Mindhunter still offers up an entertaining and satisfying watch.