Back in the 90’s there were four TV series you could argue were the flagship shows of that decade.
One was an animated cartoon that (at the time of writing) is still going (although not for much longer if rumours are to be believed). Another two were 4-walled sitcoms set in New York that shared a universe via a 3rd sitcom called Mad About You.
But the 4th was something else. It was about two FBI agents “banished” to a basement chapter of the Bureau called the X-Files. In one of the episodes the male lead talks to the female lead about a real-life case called The Mad Bomber.
Long story short – from 1940 to 1956 George Metesky blew up shit at random locations in New York using homemade bombs. Catching him was next to impossible using traditional forensic techniques, so as a hail-mary cops consulted a criminal psychiatrist.
After analysing the crime scene photos and the taunting letters Metesky had sent to the authorities, the psychiatrist painted a detailed portrait of the sort of man the “Mad Bomber” was.
It encompassed his personality traits, his age, build, even his nationality. It even went so far as to say Metesky was likely a virgin, had an Oedipus complex and should they catch him: “He’ll be wearing a double-breasted suit, buttoned”.
What this psychiatrist had done was create one of the world’s first criminal profiles. And yes, it did eventually lead to Metesky’s arrest. Legend has it he answered the door in his P.J.’s, but when the cops told him to get dressed, guess what kind of outfit he put on…?
So, what does this all have to do with Netflix’s Mindhunter?
Well in the mid 90’s I found myself wandering through a bookstore on George Street when, for some reason, this thick paperback leaped out at me. It was black with silver lettering and it was titled Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit. I still have it. It was about a relatively new investigative technique called forensic profiling – developed throughout the late 70’s and 80’s. Only now it was about to hit the zeitgeist, and reading about it seemed a great way to load up on what (at the very least) would be an awesome dinner party conversation starter. (This was pre-Wikipedia don’t forget).
So, I bought the book and devoured it cover-to-cover. It cites the story of Metesky and his capture (so it wasn’t just a flight of fancy from Mulder…) before detailing the career of former real-life FBI agent John E. Douglas, and his partner Robert Ressler.
In the 70’s they hit upon the idea to interview notorious and incarcerated serial killers back when the term serial killer had yet to be coined. Initially it was to try and get a sense of the senseless nature of their crimes, but in doing so they found they were unearthing patterns and “reasons of logic” that lay within the world of psychological motivation (as opposed to traditional motivation – eg: I need money, this person has money, I’m going to kill this person to get their money).
This new investigative tool was the stuff of Hollywood dreams. To be able to predict what sort of car a vicious killer drives? What sort of house he lives in? What type of watch he wears and on what wrist? It was Sherlock Holmes but sexier – more mysterious, because it was the “psychic TV detective” come to life!
And I knew about this miraculous thing before all my friends. That is…until about a year or so later when Hollywood (not for the last time) shat on my parade by releasing Millennium and Profiler – two TV series that centred around, you guessed it, a criminal profiler.
My book had gone mainstream. Nowadays the lexicon of profiling is so common, you can’t throw a letter at the various NCIS, CSI’s and SVU’s without it being raised with the general assumption that EVERYONE in the audience knows what you’re talking about.
But back then, it was magic. And the magic of Mindhunter the TV series is that it takes place at a time when profiling can be sexy again. Ie: The time of its birth.
For it is a very dramatized recreation of my black & silver book. Set in the 70’s it follows a young Special Agent Holden Ford (effectively Douglas in this universe) and an older pro Bill Tench (Ressler) as they go about conducting their earliest interviews. They do this very much on their own time amid scepticism & resistance from their fellow agents.
As a series it dips into real life cases & characters when it needs to – it’s portrayal of their very first interviewee Edmund Kemper is both chilling and chillingly accurate in regards to the person I had painted inside my head. To see Ed “come to life” after all these years is a sensation I can’t begin to describe.
Yet other elements – usually to do with the home lives of the two leads – are the stuff of typical TV drama. As a series its rhythm is hard to describe. It’s not a serial killer-of-the-week cop show by any stretch, yet it’s not a straight up dramatization of “real-life events” with all the oblique plotlines that can go with such a story.
What it certainly is, is compelling. Well set up for a 2nd season, you will be skipping the end credits big time to get to the next episode.
As a Douglas avatar, Ford – played by Jonathan Groff – will go through an interesting evolution in subsequent years (should the series go beyond 2) mainly because when profiling entered the world of popular media both Douglas and Ressler (by all accounts) had a huge falling out over credit.
Undoubtedly Mindhunter the book is a biography that very much downplays Ressler’s involvement, as it’s told through Douglas’s eyes. And by all accounts Douglas himself has no problem being Hollywood-ised in multiple ways – eg: he has been cited as the inspiration behind Silence of the Lamb’s Jack Crawford, as well as Criminals Minds’ Jason Gideon AND David Rossi.
Yet in the land of the internet – passionate advocates for both men often fall in the “either/or” category. Very much like how a lot of young Australian kids fell into “You’re either a Ford man or a Holden man. You can’t be both. One car is shit, the other is the real deal”.
It is this duality in fact that caused the producers to name Douglas’s character Holden Ford.
The series is also co-produced by Charlize Theron and David Fincher.
Also, I completely made up that bit about Holden’s name. I have no idea why they chose it.
Series 2 will be just as good if not better than series 1. But it’ll jump the shark by series 3.
– Antony Yee