Screen Test

TV review: Mindhunter explores history of criminology

True crime and criminal procedurals seem to be approaching a sort of toxic critical mass, with many new shows sinking into an undifferentiated blob of ripped-from-the-headlines pap.

But if anyone could shake things up, it is surely David Fincher, the film-maker who put Gwyneth Paltrow's head in a box in the murder mystery Se7en (1995) and helped launched House Of Cards (2013 to present), the first show of the binge-watching era.

Mindhunter, produced by Fincher and Charlize Theron, does not make a debut as surefooted House Of Cards', but the serial-killer drama has enough novelty and panache to stand out.

Multiple murders have gripped the imagination since Jack the Ripper, but it was not till the 1970s that an FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) agent named Robert Ressler coined the term "serial killer".

How he and colleague John E. Douglas arrived at this is the kernel of this show inspired by their work, which is part procedural, part criminological history.

Based on Douglas' book Mindhunter: Inside The FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit, the story starts with Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), a young FBI hostage negotiator, noticing more killers seem to lack discernible rational motives.

The odd-couple dynamics between Holt McCallany (far left) and Jonathan Groff (left) help keep Mindhunter afloat.
The odd-couple dynamics between Holt McCallany (left) and Jonathan Groff (right) help keep Mindhunter afloat. PHOTO: NETFLIX

Like most law-enforcement types of the day, Holden's boss could not care less about psychology - they think criminals are born, not made, and it does not matter why they kill as long as you catch them.

But Ford finds an ally in Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), who runs the bureau's behavioural science unit. As he helps Tench with his teaching duties at police units across the country, Ford interviews some of the most notorious imprisoned killers of 1970s, trying to work out what makes them tick.

Together with psychologist Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), they slowly create a brand new field of criminal science: the study and profiling of serial killers.

If you haven't tired of the whole creepy-serial-killer routine - a murderer speaking matter-of-factly about his crimes, displaying flashes of charm and intelligence as the agent listens rapt and terrified, a la Clarice Starling in The Silence Of The Lambs (1991) - you will by the second criminal they interview.

  • VIEW IT / MINDHUNTER

  • Netflix

    3.5/5 stars

    THE GIFTED

    Fox (Singtel TV Channel 330, StarHub TV Channel 505), Tuesdays, 9pm

    2.5/5 stars

Just as Ford and Tench need to grow into their role as criminologists, so too does the show. Early episodes directed by Fincher put his austere style to good use in unsettling the viewer, but they are also disjointed and blighted by some painfully stilted dialogue and way-too-obvious song choices.

But the show eventually finds its feet and what often saves it are the odd-couple, Mulder-and-Scully dynamics between Ford and Tench, and the dramatic tension afforded by their pariah status (they even have a basement office just like in The X-Files).

The show also brushes against some of the most juicy philosophical questions: Why do people kill? Is it nature or nurture? Is it a response to society's repressiveness or a world in turmoil? It will be impossible to not think of these when you read about mass shootings or murder cases in the news.

The Gifted is another show trying to reinvigorate a done-to-death genre: the mutant-as-superhero story.

This X-Men spin-off stars Stephen Moyer and Amy Acker as Reed and Caitlin Strucker, a suburban couple who go on the run after discovering their children possess mutant powers, and seek help from an underground network of mutants to survive.

In this world, mutants are feared and shunned; it is not illegal to be one, but using your powers, even accidentally, is a serious crime. Andy Drucker (Percy Hynes White) learns this when, provoked by bullies, his powers flatten half his school.

In the two episodes reviewed, metaphors for social exclusion based on race and sexuality feature in nearly every scene and song choice and are about as subtle as a red, white and blue cape.

When the Strucker kids "come out" to their parents (cue a groan-worthy "it gets better" reference) , the latter must confront their own prejudice towards mutants and the fact that Reed, a lawyer, had helped prosecute them.

Yet even with its progressive politics, The Gifted feels dated, from its unoriginal premise to the tinny-looking visual effects and mutant-hunting arachnid drones.

And with the high bar set by stylish, edgy superhero dramas such as Jessica Jones (2015 to present) and Legion (2017 to present), fictional mutants aren't the only ones that need saving.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2017, with the headline 'Criminologists finding their feet'. Print Edition | Subscribe