Amid all the mystification over why Stephen Paddock committed mass murder in Las Vegas, “Mindhunter” arrives as if summoned. The sharp new Netflix series is about the FBI’s first studies in the psychological motives of serial killers, back in 1979. Agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) is hungry to dig deeper than his nuts-and-bolts colleagues, to get close to the dark and tangled Freudian core of his subjects’ minds, just as we are aching to understand what drove Paddock to that hotel window with an arsenal of firearms.
So the series, based on the 1995 nonfiction book “Mind Hunter: Inside The FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit” by Mark Olshaker and John E. Douglas, scratches a timely itch. But “Mindhunter” is also a fascinating drama in its own right, taking on not only the most twisted sides of human nature but the glacial pace at which institutions like the FBI change and grow. For some reason, Netflix has made only two episodes available for review, and both are compromised by the unsubtle plot and character setups found in most TV pilots. Still, they promise a tense, beautifully filmed series, one that, given the popularity of serial killer shows including “Criminal Minds,” “The Fall,” “Hannibal,” and even “Dexter,” will likely catch on.
For Netflix, “Mindhunter” follows a pattern that has been successful. As with “House of Cards,” the streaming service’s breakthrough hit, the show is executive produced by star director David Fincher (“The Social Network,” “Seven” “Fight Club”), and he has directed the first two episodes. The scenes are seductively paced, the tone is almost noir, the period detail is solid but not distracting, and the soundtrack (including, of course, the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer”) is always on point. A few tense set pieces feature Holden interviewing real life serial killer Edmund Kemper (played by Cameron Britton) in prison, trying to get the giant man to delve into his feelings about his mother (whom he killed and then had sex with). Like Holden in those scenes, you won’t want to look, but you won’t want to look away.
Groff plays Holden as an innocent, and at times he goes a bit too far with it. Holden is in the FBI, but he nonetheless comes off like an undergrad taking Criminology 101. He is in one of the small screen’s most awkward bar flirtation scenes. At the same time, Groff nails Holden’s growing intuition about interviewing serial killers, as he begins to see how fruitful those conversations can be. You can see him beginning to shed his innocence as he learns to tease out the evil in his interviewees’ minds. McCallany also relies on stock traits early on — he’s the gruff, more impatient partner — until he comes round to Holden’s way of thinking and begins to take their work more seriously.
There’s not a lot of action in “Mindhunter,” whose first season of 10 episodes is available on Friday. “Our goal is to be preemptive,” Holden says. But the carefully established atmosphere, the talk of murder, and the glimpses of deep derangement are all certainly gripping enough.
Starring: Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, Anna Torv, Hannah Gross, Cotter Smith
Season 1 available on FridayMatthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.