By Darren Franich
October 13, 2017 at 12:58 PM EDT
Patrick Harbron/Netflix
Fall TV
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For over 20 years, David Fincher has been deconstructing America’s fascination with serial killers. The tones have varied: Se7en had symphonic nihilism, Zodiac had clinical precision, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo had lots of pretty snow. But his crime dramas share a paranoid-android remove, like the camera’s an X-ray machine and the actors are carefully posed skeletons. Here’s a word you don’t expect to use when describing a Fincher project: charming.

But Mindhunter (now on Netflix) is charming, a conversational exploration of criminal behavior that could become an origin story for modern American madness. It’s 1977, the Son of Sam has just been arrested, and FBI agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) wants to understand the epidemic of maniacal mass murder. Ford meets a professor (Jordan Gelber) who sums up the problem in national-historic terms. The FBI was created to catch criminals like John Dillinger or Babyface Nelson, fame-hogs with money on the mind, avatars of an era when crime was local and explicable. “Now we have extreme violence between strangers,” the professor muses. “Where do we go when motive becomes elusive?”

Given recent events, the answer to that question could be “America circa 2017.” So Ford’s quest to understand murderous motivations is also a check-up on the national mood. But the show takes time getting there. After his conversation with the professor, Ford starts talking with a young woman named Debbie (Hannah Gross) at the bar. He’s G-Man but a babyfaced square, she’s a hip sociology student with pre-medical marijuana. “So what do you think about Durkheim’s labeling theory on deviancy?” is a thing Debbie actually says, that memorable nerdflirt subtitled under the noise of a loud rock show.

There are a lot of scenes like that. Netflix only released two episodes to critics ahead of time, both directed by Fincher, and they take awhile to build. (This review is only based on those two episodes, which certainly don’t represent the full season. But they are the best two hours Fincher’s directed since The Social Network.) Ford’s paired up with Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), a middle-aged lifer tasked with teaching local PDs the latest hotshot-fed notions of criminality. It’s a bum road-tripping gig, motels and Nowheresville PDs, but something sparks in Ford. Soon, he’s lecturing Iowa cops about Shakespeare and Dostoevsky.

When the odd couple head to California, Ford gets a disruptive idea. To understand the murderer’s mind, why not start a conversation with the ones behind bars? And the Golden State is full of imprisoned maniacs. Like, say, Ed Kemper, known to history as the Co-Ed Killer. Kemper’s played by Cameron Britton in one of the year’s standout performances, malevolent yet convivial. Kemper calls killing a “vocation,” describes his own decapitory-necrophiliac trademark as an “oeuvre.” “You can spell oeuvre, can’t you, Holden?” he asks, sounding for all the world like Bacall asking Bogart if he knows how to whistle.

The Kemper-Ford interrogations dominate episode 2. More recognizable historical figures loom on the show’s horizon. Series regular Anna Torv won’t even appear until the third episode. So it’s a slow start, sprawling through cross-country locations. It can feel unfocused. But Fincher, who directed four episodes in the first season — season 2’s already greenlit — seems energized with the leisure of a TV season’s running time. There’s a road-trip montage set to Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle,” a date-night viewing of Dog Day Afternoon, a shot of McCallany golfing alone that feels like a luscious postcard from the lonely American edge. Mindhunter explores grotesquerie, but the effect is good-humored. Here at the supernova-birth of modern evil, David Fincher has chilled out.

Check back early next week for a full review of Mindhunter‘s first season.

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