‘Mindhunter’ and the Sins of Procedural Cop Shows

In Media and Culture, Movie & TV Reviews, Posts by Impact Admin

— By Carly Twehous —

There is no shortage of crime dramas on TV. I’m pretty sure it’s the de facto law of television, with the exclusion of a very select few.

Either it dies a masterpiece, or it lives long enough to see itself become a procedural cop show.

Some shows are doomed from the start. They start out as procedural cop shows. Bones, all equally bland incarnations of C.S.I. (Seriously. Why is that still on?), NCIS, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Criminal Minds, Castle… And those are just the ones I can name off the top of my head.

For the life of me, I cannot figure out why shows like these run for literally eons and potential masterpieces like Firefly and Torchwood and Star Trek: Enterprise are smothered before their time.

Procedural cop shows are all exactly the same, although, naturally, each claims to have a particular plot device that makes them unique from every other crime drama on television. In Bones, it’s Brennan’s ability to find the murderer just by looking at the bones. Criminal Minds is the emphasis on the psychology of the killer. Castle pretty much banked on Nathan Fillion, and even that wasn’t enough. Whatever device the show claims as its saving grace is never enough.

It’s still a procedural cop show:

Someone’s murdered, in an increasingly bizarre manner directly proportional to the length of time the show’s been on the air. The B-story is introduced: the cops are going through some emotional trauma that is supposed to be poetically mirrored in either the psyche of the killer or the victim. They interview the witnesses and discover the facts. They probably find something bizarre, to at least give the illusion of a well-constructed plot that hasn’t been done a million times before. They bring in the suspects. Plot twist: it’s the wrong guy. They go back over the case. Then, there’s an obviously choreographed fight scene, before the B-list cops finally nab the killer. Fade to black.

If you haven’t guessed already, I had very low expectations when I sat down to watch Mindhunter, even with David Fincher as its claim of uniqueness. I’d love to say this one was different, because, come on, David Fincher! This is the guy that did Seven and Gone Girl and Fight Club. Many people have Fincher as their draft pick to direct Star Wars: Episode IX. (Sorry, Fincher. My vote goes to J.J.) This guy is an acknowledged cinematic genius and a brilliant storyteller.

The good thing? Mindhunter is different. It focuses on one, Silence of the Lamb-type serial killer, instead of the murderer of the week. The audience gets to see the inner psyche of this man, his inbred misogyny, his skewed masculinity, his obvious psychotic tendencies, etc. Plus, the show’s just as much about the psyche of the G-men hunting him as it is about the why behind the brutal murders.

The really good thing? Mindhunter is not so much procedural as it is formulaic. The entirety of the first season was dumped on Netflix, thereby making the more traditional C.S.I.-style story nearly obsolete. We’re here to binge watch, not solve the murder of the week.

The bad? Mindhunter is basically a traditional procedural cop show episode drawn out over the course of an entire season, rather than a mere forty minutes. It’s got a healthy dose of Fincher-isms that certainly make it more tolerable, but, ultimately, Mindhunter fails to completely distance itself from the tenants and clichés of its genre.

Mindhunter isn’t terrible. There are certainly worse shows on television. (Seriously, C.S.I.?! Why?!) And a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes isn’t for nothing. Where it falls short, however, is that little umph that takes a procedural show to the level of Twin Peaks or Sherlock.

A crime show is good when it recognizes that heroes have the capacity to be just as evil as the murderer. It’s that tingle of fear, in Silence of the Lambs, when Anthony Hopkins explaining himself to Jodi Foster, or in Seven when Brad Pitt is finally pushed to his limits. It’s Sherlock and Moriarty. The audience is supposed to recognize that all that separates good from evil is a choice.

And it’s not like Mindhunter didn’t try the mirror-image thing. It might have even succeeded more than I probably cared to notice. It just got slow in the middle, bogged down by the inherent shock value of the gruesome murders and weird B-stories that were neither captivating nor entirely relevant.

Crime shows are great when they recognize how fragile humanity is, and how important it is to preserve what little humanity dwells in both the flawed protagonist and the murderer. Though Fincher is well-versed in exploring that line of thought in so many of the stories he chooses to tell, Mindhunter left a bit too much to be desired.

About the Author
Carly Twehous is a screenwriting alumna from JPCatholic (’17) who possesses a slightly inordinate love of both chocolate and comic books. In what little free time she has, she makes use of it by time traveling, ghost busting, and furiously scouring the globe for potential alien activity.