It’s a wee-bit ironic that in this age of instant everything, one of our most popular modes of entertainment—the binge-watch—requires a considerable degree of patience. Again and again, I announce I’m about to jump ship on a series, after just two or three episodes, only to be told to “stick with it” because “it gets better.” In some cases, that means trudging through an entire first season, because “the second one is when it really comes together.” For stand-alone shows like Black Mirror, that’s not applicable—just dive in wherever you like. But for a narrative series like The Leftovers, that’s a lotta mediocrity for us click-happy, ADD-addled robots to tolerate before getting to the good stuff.
Mindhunter, a Netflix series that debuted last week, only takes one (maybe two) episodes to hook you like a crackhead junkie, but you need to let at least three of your guards down before it can work its hoodoo. Produced and directed by David Fincher, among others, it’s another serial-killer treatise a la Seven and Zodiac. Set in the late ’70s, it’s heavy on vintage cars and polyester trousers and fake moustaches and old pops songs (see also: The Deuce and American Made).
It also stars Jonathan Groff as an FBI agent. He’s best known for his appearance in Glee and for playing King George III in Hamilton—and for being very “Jonathan Groff’ in any role he takes on. So if you see him here and wonder why that gay guy from Looking is trying to pick up a woman in a bar, it’s understandable.
But pilots are never to be trusted. They’ve got too much groundwork to lay, too much tone to set, and once Mindhunter establishes its historical context, the show feels like anything but a retread. The odd casting of Groff quickly makes sense, since his Holden Ford is supposed to be sensitive and inexperienced and awkward. And the character’s mix of tender and tenacious makes him an interesting choice for an origin story about the FBI method of grilling serial killers for psychological insight—which we’ve taken for granted since The Silence of the Lambs.
God knows we’ve been seeing bad Hannibal Lecter impressions for decades (Jared Leto’s is the lone pockmark on Blade Runner 2049), but thankfully Mindhunter gives us something much better: Ed Kemper, the real-life killer who murdered his grandparents and several young women. Flawlessly played by Cameron Britton, Kemper feels like the most affable committer of heinous crimes in TV history. He almost wins your sympathy when talking of his mother and grandmother, both “controlling, aggressive, matriarchal women.” Until he describes beating mom to death with a claw hammer.
As Kemper relates his crimes in horrific detail, Ford grows visibly nervous, and that’s when Kemper does something really weird: He touches Fords arm, softly, as if to say, “Don’t be scared, I won’t hurt you.” It’s enough to … well, maybe not win your sympathy, but at least keep you seated until you finish the whole damn season.