It’s the usual sus­pects in crime drama ‘Mind­hunter’. Is David Fincher out of step with the TV times?

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - JENNIFER GANNON - JEN­NIFER GANNON

Most telly so­phis­ti­cates by now feel that they’re adept in this lan­guage. They can dif­fer­en­ti­ate their Dah­mers from their Nilsens with­out much dif­fi­culty

It’s fi­nally hap­pened. We’ve reached tele­vi­sion se­rial-killer sat­u­ra­tion point. There have been so many psy­cho-sex­ual killers stuffed into our eye­balls that as view­ers we’ve be­come de­sen­si­tised. The con­veyor belt of corpses that slide through prime­time TV seems never-end­ing. We’ve had more than a decade of an as­sort­ment of women’s blue/grey bodies ob­served on the slab, the de­scrip­tion of their as­saults and even­tual deaths poured over in minute de­tail, which has be­come more graphic to en­ter­tain fa­tigued au­di­ences.

Be­fore all this, po­lice dra­mas were mostly Berg­erac whizzing round Jer­sey in his bat­tered leather jacket with his cod-reg­gae theme tune or some­one be­ing in­ter­ro­gated by spice­burger-faced DCI Burn­side in The

Bill for buy­ing a truck­load of il­le­gal fire­works.

Th­ese days you can have your se­rial killer served up in a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent ways, like a psy­chotic pizza. There’s the Lynda La Plante school of hard knocks for women, the Prime

Sus­pect and Un­der Sus­pi­cion fran­chises full of salty, no non­sense fe­males.

There is the ex­otic strain of dour Scandi-noir, the cat and mouse pseudo-psy­cho­log­i­cal silli­ness of The Fall, and the art-house un­der­grad­u­ate in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism of True De­tec­tive. Crim­i­nal Minds has now taken to hav­ing its own main char­ac­ters fea­ture in acts of out­landish peril be­cause com­ing up with in­creas­ingly sen­sa­tion­al­ist ways to tor­ture and kill women for an hour-long show ev­ery week was ob­vi­ously be­com­ing a bit much.

They can dress it up in dif­fer­ent ways with ar­rest­ing cin­e­matog­ra­phy, sur­real plot-twists, the fe­male de­tec­tive per­spec­tive, or award-win­ning ac­tors and di­rec­tors. But th­ese dra­mas will al­ways come back to the sin­is­ter fairy tale of the bo­gey man. Even the first se­ries of True De­tec­tive, for all its con­spir­acy the­o­ries about the in­her­ent evil within the shad­owy es­tab­lish­ment and its ni­hilis­tic phi­los­o­phy, even­tu­ally amounted to acts of de­prav­ity by the rudi­men­tary lone weirdo.

Al­most ev­ery show of this ilk is fol­low­ing on from Jonathan Demme’s ground­break­ing

Si­lence of the Lambs. In the 26 years since, se­rial killers have qui­etly trans­ferred from the big screen to our pri­vate homes. The York­shire Rip­per now sits in your house like an or­na­men­tal vase on the man­tel­piece. Char­ac­ters that were once truly fas­ci­nat­ing and hor­rific have be­come av­er­age: their con­stant pres­ence has made them worka­day mur­der­ers. Is there any­thing left to say about the now clichéd char­ac­ter of the se­rial killer?

If any­one can re­vive this flag­ging genre it should be David Fincher. This is the di­rec­tor that gave us the schlocky shocks of Seven and

Zo­diac, the lat­ter a mas­ter­piece about ob­ses­sion and how th­ese opaque his­to­ries haunt our hu­man­ity. Zo­diac was the story of the un­know­able killer but played out through pro­ce­dure, and the at­tempt to bring him to jus­tice rather than con­cen­trat­ing on the psy­chol­ogy be­hind the crimes.

Net­flix drama

Mind­hunter, Fincher’s much an­tic­i­pated new 10-part drama for Net­flix again cen­tres on the col­la­tion of in­for­ma­tion, not just the ex­plo­ration of the frac­tured psy­che of the se­rial-killer char­ac­ter.

The se­ries, set in 1979, fol­lows the es­tab­lish­ment of the Elite Se­rial Crime Unit by two FBI agents, who try to un­der­stand the minds of th­ese mur­der­ers in an ef­fort to solve on-go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions. So far, so Crim­i­nal Minds, and this is the un­for­tu­nate is­sue with Mind­hunter.

Au­di­ences have seen this tem­plate many times through­out the genre. Most telly so­phis­ti­cates by now feel that they’re adept in this lan­guage. They can dif­fer­en­ti­ate their Dah­mers from their Nilsens with­out much dif­fi­culty so to take them back to the invention of psy­cho­log­i­cal pro­fil­ing could make for la­bo­ri­ous view­ing. Re­cent au­di­ences, raised on vi­o­lent con­tent, will be left dis­ap­pointed by the first two episodes. This is about the ar­du­ous work of de­tec­tion and it is se­ri­ous, manly work.

In its pon­der­ously, fu­ne­real-paced first episode there is an avalanche of ex­po­si­tion, which is like watch­ing bits of other crime shows patched to­gether to cre­ate a shonky megamix. Here, writer Joe Pen­hall deals al­most ex­clu­sively in leaden crime con­ven­tions. There is the crit­i­cism of “rene­gade” ways by crusty old su­pe­ri­ors; there are men wear­ing suits in smoky bars straight talk­ing into their whisky glasses; and there is the in­evitable clash between the work­ing cops on the ground and the high­fa­lutin would-be psy­chol­o­gists sent to teach them new in­ves­ti­ga­tion meth­ods.

Cliché bingo

You can also play char­ac­ter-cliché bingo: there’s Jonathan Groff’s young Holden Ford, a trail­blaz­ing but naive neo­phyte try­ing to shake up the sys­tem. He is part­nered with Holt McCal­lany’s gruff, sea­soned de­tec­tive Bill Tench, who Ford has much to learn from. Throw in a sassy, lib­er­ated girl­friend and you have a crime show that veers straight into laugh­able par­ody.

There are glimpses of what the se­ries could blos­som into out­side of its ir­ri­tat­ing, re­dun­dant car­i­ca­tures. 1979 was a turn­ing point in the af­ter­math of the age of Aquarius un­der the spec­tre of Charles Man­son – the man who mur­dered the myth of the Sum­mer of Love – and af­ter the era of the Son of Sam.

Misog­yny is in­sid­i­ous and the opin­ions of those in­ves­ti­gat­ing the crimes of­ten co­a­lesce or em­pathise with the pre­sumed mon­sters they are hunt­ing. Scenes where Ford vis­its a se­rial mur­derer have that Fincher ef­fec­tive­ness: there is a re­moved cold­ness and a mat­ter-of-fact de­liv­ery about his crimes. The young agent tries to en­gage the killer through a con­ver­sa­tion about the de­base­ment of women as a kind of game of prow­ess, which is about as re­veal­ing as the stock boy-scout char­ac­ter of Ford gets.

At the end of the sec­ond episode, we leave our fear­less de­tec­tives set­ting up their X-File­sesque of­fice in the base­ment of the FBI head­quar­ters to the tune of Talk­ing Heads’ Psy­cho Killer. It’s about as sub­tle as be­ing blud­geoned over the head with a claw-ham­mer by that quiet guy that kept to him­self.

Mind­hunter might evolve into a com­plex drama with a true heart of dark­ness but for now its sup­posed van­guards are preach­ing from a rule book that most savvy au­di­ences could write them­selves.

Naive neo­phyte: Jonathan Groff in Mind­hunter

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