The sociologists he meets distrust the G-man poking around campus, but that’s nothing next to the suspicion from agents at the bureau. They put up a moral resistance to learning how murderers think; bad guys, they believe, are just bad. (A similar dynamic played out this year in Discovery’s “Manhunt: Unabomber,” in which old-school agents refused to accept the idea that their quarry was highly educated.)

Serial Killers Are Everywhere

Enter the mind of a murderer with these psychological tales of evil geniuses. See the full list at Watching, The New York Times’s TV and movie recommendation site.


Mr. Groff (“Looking”) plays Ford as room-temperature placid yet intense. There’s something compellingly off about him; he’s a milk-drinking straight arrow with a monomaniac streak that runs him afoul of department politics. As astute as he is with the criminal mind, basic social cues seem to elude him.

He finds help in agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), a behavioral-science specialist. The series becomes a kind of scholarly buddy-cop tale, Tench, serving as skeptic and human-language interpreter as they crisscross the country interviewing cops and convicts for research.

Photo
Cameron Britton and Jonathan Groff in Netflix’s “Mindhunter.”

Credit
Merrick Morton/Netflix

One unsettling encounter is with Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton), a necrophiliac murderer (popularly known as “The Co-Ed Killer”) who eluded capture until he turned himself in. In the flesh, he’s a garrulous, polite creep who discusses the mechanics of his crimes as dispassionately as he does the fine points of a prison egg-salad sandwich.

Apart from a grisly early scene, there’s little onscreen violence. The talk is ghastly enough. In the title sequence, images of death flicker briefly on screen over the meticulous loading of a reel-to-reel tape machine. Mr. Fincher, who directed four episodes, gives “Mindhunter” that restrained sensibility: micro-eruptions of primal blood through a facade of clean meticulous order.

“Mindhunter” was created by the playwright Joe Penhall, who wrote the first season with Jennifer Haley; the executive producers include Mr. Fincher and Charlize Theron. It’s based on the memoir “Mindhunter: Inside the F.B.I.’s Elite Serial Crime Unit” by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, and it can be stiff downloading the book’s ideas into dialogue.

The series is very much a boys’ club early on. Hannah Gross has some screen time as Ford’s girlfriend, Debbie Mitford, a grad student whose flirt-talk includes “What do you think about Durkheim’s labeling theory on deviancy?” Anna Torv will eventually co-star as a behavioral psychologist.

Still, the series’ linking of irrational times and unspeakable acts resonates with today’s stories of mass shootings and a widening gyre of chaos in the headlines. “Mindhunter” doesn’t aestheticize or elevate the likes of Kemper. But the notion that killers like him can be figured out and foiled is like placing a bet on reason over chaos.

I say all this with what has become the usual caveat for a Netflix show. Streaming dramas nowadays take so long to establish their premises that I don’t know if the two episodes I’ve seen are representative or just setup. It’s possible “Mindhunter” may settle into a more predictable monster chase. Let’s hope not; the chase after ideas here is more interesting.

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