'Mindhunter' - "Episode 1" Recap & Review

“What if we made Criminal Minds, but David Fincher directed it?” I have to imagine that’s the pitch that was sold to Netflix by Joe Penhall. Honestly, there’s been much worse pitches bought by the streaming giant. 

The new original series, Mindhunter, follows a pair of FBI agents in the 1970s who take it upon themselves to study the minds of the country’s most violent criminals. Rape, torture, mutilation, murder. What would make someone do something like that? If they could figure something like that out, the findings could be revolutionary.

The Mindhunter pilot focuses the majority of its time setting up lead character Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff). When we first meet Holden, he’s in the middle of a hostage negotiation. The situation ends with the captor killing himself, but none of the hostages are harmed. This is considered a massive win by everyone involved, but Holden is left feeling like feeling guilty over failing to save the captor. To every other law enforcement agent, the captor is an irredeemable criminal who got what he deserved. Holden sees a very human husband who had somehow been triggered. If Holden could figure out what that trigger was, it could help other people in the future. 

Holden’s ideas are way ahead of their time, but he eventually finds a sympathetic ear in the form of a hardened, veteran agent named Bill Tench. Bill runs a “road skill” for the bureau where he travels across the country teaching local cops about the FBI’s studies into criminal psychology. He invites Holden to tag along as his assistant, as there could be useful findings along the way. 

By episode’s end, a local cop has come to Holden and Bill for assistance on a particularly gruesome case he’s been working on. A mother and son were brutally murdered and sodomized. The lack of evidence and knowledge on criminal psychology angers Holden. Although he refuses to take the case, it does form an even greater inspiration for Holden’s research in order to solve or prevent similar cases in the future. 

That’s where the pilot episode leaves us. Holden and Bill are teamed up and ready to travel the country for their research, ready to help solve local crimes along the way. As far as premise pilots go, this was a fairly successful one. I like the dynamic of Holden and Bill, I’m intrigued about the potential findings of the criminal mind, and I’m excited to see where this journey takes our two leads. Unfortunately, the series forces the viewer to wait until at least the next episode to establish how it will function on an episodic basis.

As Holden Ford, I found Jonathan Groff’s performance to be a bit too much on the awkward and naive side. He’s got such an “aw shucks” vibe that I’d easier mistake him for someone who’s literally never left his house before over a well-respected FBI agent. Holt McCallany does a much better job right off the bat as Bill Tench. McCallany has played his share of law enforcement agents, and it’s for good reason. He looks, walks, and talks the part and is easily the ensemble’s highlight.

My only major gripe with the pilot is some very clunky dialogue. After being told that criminals used to have much simpler motives, Holden ponders, “So you’re saying…crime has changed?!” That type of on-the-nose writing is at its worst in any scene involving Holden’s relationship with grad student Debbie Mitford (Hannah Gross). There’s some truly cringey exchanges between them that are intended to come off as much more authentic. 

The Mindhunter pilot does everything a good pilot should do. It works as its own piece, while also creating interest in the story to follow.