Does the principle of auteur theory apply to TV direction? In the past, people generally considered the writers and showrunners as the authorial voices on television shows. However, now that big-name filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro, Woody Allen, Steven Soderbergh and Cary Fukunaga have brought Hollywood production values to the small screen (I’m not even including Sam Esmail and David Lynch, who both wrote and directed full seasons of their programmes), I think it’s time for an argument to be had. Perhaps, certain television and cinema should be rewarded on equal terms.
If I had any doubts regarding this argument, they evaporated within the first few minutes of Mindhunter’s pilot, helmed by the Mozart of cinema David Fincher. The Zodiac director did not create the 70s set series (that honour goes to playwright Joe Penhall) but his stamp is all over it. The first scene sees our lead character, FBI agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff – Hamilton on Broadway), attempt to de-escalate a hostage situation. The perpetrator is a man who has had a psychotic break and believes himself to be invisible. During this incredibly tense scene, Fincher’s camera movement mimics Ford’s. When the character turns, the camera moves with him. If he runs, it does too. The sensation, as a friend eloquently described to me, is like having your eyes hijacked. It feels disorientating, hypnotic and otherworldly. It’s hyper real.
And what’s better than hyper-realness for a show centring on serial killers; perpetrators of very real but often mysticized, heightened crimes. Following Ford’s experience with the senile hostage taker, the FBI agent becomes fascinated with acts of violence that have no motive. Wanting to research this rising phenomena, he teams with older, gruffer agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and eventually with psychologist and academic Dr. Wendy Carr (Fringe’s Anna Torv, underused in first five episodes but should play a bigger role in the back-half). The plan; to travel the US interviewing serial killers to gain their insight in catching other killers. As Ford states: “How do we get ahead of crazy if we don’t know how crazy thinks?”
Fincher didn’t direct each episode (he did four, the first and last two). However, hiring filmmakers as skilled as Asif Kapadia (Amy, Senna) and Tobias Lindholm (A Hijacking) to fill the gap is the next best step. Yet, cinematic visuals are not the only aspect of Mindhunter that stands out. Despite its explicit language (something vital when dealing with damaged psyches and real-life historical serial killers), the series is surprisingly old-fashioned. Essentially, based on the first five entries at least, it resembles a case-of-the-week procedural. Each episode sees Ford and Tench travelling to a new town, either interviewing a killer, solving a local mystery or both. This makes a nice change from the norms of prestige TV where often a massively complex story is told over a season or more.
There’s also the character of Ford who isn’t the dark, brooding anti-hero seen in most HBO or Netflix dramas. With his slightly high-pitched voice, his naïve hopefulness, his bookish nature and Jonathan Groff impeccable comic timing; he is a lovable dork. He is the counter balance to the depravity of humanity probed in the show. As Mindhunter moves into its second half, will the darkness harden or infect him?
- Critics seem split on the show’s use of music. Although it’s a little on the nose (Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer, Fly Like an Eagle with its chorus ‘time keeps on slipping’ during a montage of you guessed it: time passing), I appreciate it because it adds levity. Plus, it’s not like in Suicide Squad where the songs are really generic pop hits.
- Playwright Joe Penhall writes some very witty dialogue. Unhappy by Ford and Tench’s unconventional plan, their FBI boss (Cotter Smith) asks sarcastically: “What’s next, Charles Manson? When’s he booked for?”. Ford replies unsarcastically: “We were thinking June”.
- Ford is told by a fellow academically minded FBI agent that motiveless crime may be linked to societal instability. Could that be an allegory for the world today? Yes, because a joke is made about the US president being a sociopath.
- As great as Groff and McCallany (who brings so much depth and melancholy to just underneath his hard exterior), the spotlight is stolen by previously unknown Cameron Britton as real-life killer Edmund Kemper. He’s mesmerizing. He manages through physical demeanour and an odd vocal pitch to make a 6ft 9inch monster – who speaks so casually about cutting off his mother’s head and putting her vocal cords in a garbage disposal – chillingly fascinating and sort of endearing.