Television has changed so drastically in the last decade that it’s hard to comprehend in hindsight. The history of television is full of drastic change, from the move to colour to the rise of cable and satellite channels, but the emergence of streaming has exploded the very concept of what television is. Something literally no longer has to appear on TV to be a TV show. We watch TV shows on computers and telephones, instantly available and on our own schedule. So much of what we call TV now would not be recognised as TV by time travellers from twenty years ago. Cable television was small fry by comparison: it was still recognisably television, there was just a lot more of it. A dozen new places to watch Murder She Wrote reruns.
Streaming is different. It’s not just the rise of major new companies in the TV landscape, it’s the transformation of both how we watch TV and how TV gets made. In 2013, Netflix started pivoting in earnest to original programming with Orange Is The New Black and House of Cards, and in the years since, basically every tech or media company has decided to launch its own subscription streaming service, each offering original, exclusive programming. Most of it is released a full season at a time, although Disney+ and Apple TV have tried (with varying degrees of success) to release episodes weekly. The season lengths are generally short: if the typical seasons of American television were twenty-two episodes or so on a network and around thirteen on cable, recent streaming shows tap out at about ten. While short seasons are typical of how TV is produced in a lot of countries – six episodes has been the consistent norm in the UK for decades – those old-fashioned long seasons are now at death’s door in the US, too.
This is important because it’s transformed what TV is actually like. In the early days, the rise of streaming services was often discursively bundled in with the Golden Age of TV that was set off by The Sopranos: complex, serialised storytelling, the story goes, was now possible on television, usually in the form of dark antihero dramas. If the rhetoric about the Golden Age of TV was sometimes overblown – a strange form of backhanded snobbery that put television as a medium down in order to praise its programmes – it was describing something real and tangible and exciting. Watching Breaking Bad for the first time was one of the greatest thrills I’ve had with any piece of art. Although to this day Wikipedia frames this golden age as ongoing, there was a clear shift at a certain point. Bundling modern streaming television in with The Sopranos totally misses what streaming shows are actually like to watch.
Television as a medium has traditionally been both short and long: you watch it for half an hour or so, but over months and years. Streaming television has effectively reversed this: episodes bloat and bleed into one another, which combined with the shorter seasons, gives the feeling of a stretched-out movie. And then it gets cancelled prematurely. So much of great old television is tight, short episodes churned out for the better part of a decade – an epic mosaic made from tiny, carefully crafted individual artworks – and so much of modern television is two bloated and sluggish seasons and then cancellation. The second season of Jessica Jones was such a bloated mess that didn’t even really feel like it had episodes, it just rolled credits at around the hour mark. Most people around me seem to have adjusted to the new television landscape fairly well, even if I am convinced they have forgotten exactly what they’re missing. When people talk about binging shows, too often it sounds to my ear less like they are enjoying the show so much they want to stay with it that bit longer and more like they’re racing to get it over with.
If you love television – and I do, dearly, since I was a tiny tot sat in front of the box to watch cartoons – it’s easy to despair and retreat into old detective shows and classic sitcoms. Emily VanDerWerff captured my feelings perfectly:
The things I love about older TV are precisely the things that are missing from TV right now. In the olden times, TV sprawled and took its time and unfolded over many episodes over many years. Even a show like Breaking Bad took several years to unspool its story, and when you look at something like Cheers, it’s impossible to imagine something with that level of depth and complexity getting that long to tell its story today. We are built not for the long haul, but for an endless assault of the new… That makes me sad, or maybe it just makes me old. But it does seem like whatever this medium I love is becoming, it’s not quite the thing that made me fall in love with it.
But it is possible for great shows to still get made. Great shows get made all the time, in fact. I Think You Should Leave is quite possibly the greatest sketch show of all time, and it probably wouldn’t have gotten made in any previous era of American television. But too many great shows feel like they were born too late, trapped in a time that can’t appreciate them the way they deserve. Shows like Mindhunter.
Mindhunter seems, on the surface, like it fits the new television mould much better than the old one that I miss so. It has the cinematic pedigree that people who call TV shows “ten hour movies” lap up in the form of director and executive producer David Fincher. It has some episodes that tip over the seventy-minute mark, but not with any consistency, a telltale sign of the bloat that accompanies not having to fit into a broadcast schedule. It’s of a piece with modern streaming TV, and Netflix backed it hard before David Fincher became too busy to work on another season.
And yet. Mindhunter makes the difference between the Golden Age of TV and modern streaming television really clear, because it’s a Golden Age show trapped in the streaming era. Its strengths expose so much of modern TV’s weaknesses, even as it encapsulates the revolution in possibilities the Golden Age brought about. If it was made by HBO in the 2000s, it would have run for seven seasons. If we lived in a just world, in a world that appreciated what television is and can be instead of wishing it was movies, that’s what we would have gotten. But it was made by Netflix in 2017, so we got just two seasons instead.
Mindhunter is about the founding of the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit in the 1970s: a small unit that studies multiple murderers and develops the beginnings of criminal profiling. You’ve got FBI agent Holden (Jonathan Groff), a fresh-faced hostage negotiator who becomes interested in violent crimes and criminal psychology. He starts working with Bill (Holt McCallany), a gruff middle-aged dad who runs the “road school”, teaching police across America FBI techniques. On one of their stops, Holden decides to go interview Edmund Kemper, the co-ed killer, in prison. And so it begins.
Kemper (Cameron Britton) is a huge man, nearly seven foot tall and bulky besides. Britton holds his body in a way that makes his size inescapably menacing: it doesn’t recede from your mind when he sits, it weighs heavy in his tiniest movements. Like a man with a loaded gun, Kemper’s size is a constant reminder that the only reason you’re alive is he hasn’t decided to kill you. He’s also extremely intelligent and articulate. He talks about his murders conversationally, casually. Raping his mother’s severed head and all. Holden is rapt.
Over the course of the first season, Holden and Bill co-found the BSU, along with psychology professor Wendy (Anna Torv), a lesbian who’s out in Boston and closeted in Virginia. (Her lefty academic girlfriend can’t understand why she would want to work with cops, no matter how many times she explains this is the most important work she’s ever gotten close to.) It starts out as a seat-of-their-pants operation, interviewing Kemper and eventually other serial killers when the road school brings them into the vicinity. (They’re not called serial killers yet, but they will be. The BSU come up with the term.) The Bureau is initially furious, but they eventually get institutional support, taking over a dingy basement at Quantico and hiring a guy called Greg to transcribe interview tapes. They want to learn how the killers think and feel, developing different profiles and clusters to describe their psychology.
It is, in no small part, a case of the week show. In a given episode, Bill and Holden interview a new killer or assist in the investigation of a different violent crime, and it is, in many ways, classic police procedural stuff, albeit with more extreme content. The shift to streaming television has done great detriment to the art of the episode, where it is treated too often as an arbitrary unit in a big story. Mindhunter remembers that an episode isn’t an obligation, it’s an opportunity: a chance to tell a smaller story that fits into the larger one.
The trend towards shows being so serialised that episodes effectively don’t matter is easy to frame as part of the “novelistic” style of Golden Age television, but have you watched The Sopranos or Breaking Bad lately? Golden Age shows had serialised storytelling, but they also had distinctive, well-made individual episodes; that’s what made them great TV shows. The people who wrote Golden Age shows developed their craft writing for network TV, whether that’s David Chase working on The Rockford Files or Vince Gilligan starting out on The X-Files: it gave their approach to television discipline, understanding the rules before deciding what ones to break. The Sopranos tells big stories, but it also has a whole episode about everyone finding out that Uncle Junior eats out his girlfriend. Breaking Bad doesn’t blur into one big lump, it’s full of episodes that tell specific, contained stories: “Peekaboo”, “Fly”, “Ozymandias.” Lost was so heavily serialised that its later seasons are impenetrable for the uninitiated, yet it featured some of my favourite episodes of television ever, like “The Constant” or “Tricia Tanaka Is Dead”, perfect hours that I hold dear to my heart. This is the tradition I would place Mindhunter in: the kind of show that balances serialised and episodic storytelling to get the best out of both.
Some of that balance is understanding how to write character-driven stories: so we get a throughline through case of the week stuff and get tight, focused episodes that don’t get lost in a mush of serialisation. Bill is a kind of obvious character type: a middle-aged guy who spends too much time at work and not enough time at home, he thinks every killer they interview is a sick fuck and hates them on sight. He’s a TV cop, pure and simple. But it doesn’t feel simple, it feels genuine and affecting: almost like they reconstituted the TV cop from the ground up, remembering why these clichés became clichés. In season two, a genuinely harrowing plotline about his adopted kid means his poor work-life balance takes on much more disturbing implications than some vague “not being a good husband and father” thing. McCallany is brilliant. He plays Bill as such a loveable, personable guy that it takes a while to see how cold or withholding he is when you get beyond the surface level. Maybe that’s not quite it: there’s nothing deliberate or cruel there. His wife and kid just need so much more from him than he is capable of giving.
Jonathan Groff has the kind of sweet face that makes you naturally think of Holden as innocent and naive – maybe even guileless. His season one relationship with his new free-spirited grad student girlfriend Debbie consists in no small part of him discovering the joy of sex acts that the FBI keeps on a list of deviant terms, and there’s a sweetness and curiosity that Debbie (and the audience) finds charming. This makes the gradual reveal of Holden’s character so perfect.
Very slowly, the show lets us notice in Holden subtle indicators of the psychological profile they’re building for killers. Holden seems convinced of his own genius, unwilling to follow the parameters Wendy sets out for interviews so that they can get actually useful data. When helping out police with a murder case, he’s eager to take credit for what is actually accomplished with old-fashioned detective work. He manipulates a man into a confession in a way that is definitely unethical, and probably illegal. He seems more and more narcissistic, belittling Bill and Wendy and neglecting his relationship with Debbie; he way oversteps the bounds of his role to effectively ruin a random man’s life; you start to notice lies and cryptic statements that make you feel like he’s got something to hide. They never pull the curtain back, not the full way; just enough to unsettle you. It feels like he’s changed, but has he? The only thing we have to hold onto that told us Holden was sweet and good was Groff’s smile.
In the season one finale, Holden flies across the country to see Kemper in the medical wing of the prison: he attempted suicide (or certainly cut his wrist in a way that would make doctors assume he did) and had Holden down as his next of kin. He wanted to get his attention, since he didn’t respond to his cards. (Holden did, however, pin them up in their office, a cheery row of greetings from the co-ed killer.) And it worked. Holden shows up, and tells Kemper that he considers him a friend “in the context of our work together,” tells him about the profiles they’ve been developing. Holden looks exhausted and sick.
“You’re an expert now,” Kemper says.
“No,” Holden replies.
“Sounds like it.”
“I am not an expert.”
“But you want to be, don’t you?” Kemper asks, and it weighs heavy in the silence afterwards, inflected with more meaning than the words contain on their own. It sounds like Kemper is asking, at least in part, if Holden wants to be an expert the way that Kemper is. To understand how serial killers think in the truest way possible.
Holden’s eyes shift ever so slightly downwards. “Yes,” he answers, eventually.
(Moments later, when Kemper hugs him, Holden runs out and has a panic attack.)
Just writing it out feels like drawing too much attention to it – Mindhunter’s approach to Holden’s psychology is feather-light, putting you off-balance without giving you a new firm ground to stand on. It would be easy to do a quick-turnaround “Holden is a psychopath” reveal, but the show does something much more interesting, never giving us that satisfaction. Even after the end of season two, it feels like you’ve only started scratching the surface. And that’s part of why it is so disappointing that it’s over.
Season two is slightly less case-of-the-week-driven, but it maintains that balance of episodic and serialised. It’s easy to frame the season as being about investigating the Atlanta child murders, and it is: the show has a sharp eye for the racial politics at play even as Holden is all blindspots. Holden is convinced that the killer is black because these crimes rarely cross racial lines, but “FBI agent suspects young black male” sounds a lot less like groundbreaking psychological insight and a lot more like business as usual. Especially when we know the unit has studied and interviewed killers who did cross racial lines. Holden’s “experiments” with Greg on whether a black kid would willingly get in a white man’s car guide his approach, but as a black FBI agent points out, the dynamics of a couple of white feds going up to black kids in the projects in DC are not particularly applicable to Atlanta.
But the show doesn’t up sticks and decamp to Atlanta. There’s still plenty of serial killers to interview. (Holden, frustrated by a killer being unintelligent and uneducated, wistfully longs for the good old days with Kemper.) Bill and Holden’s focus on the Atlanta killings means we see other members of the BSU conducting interviews, including a brilliant episode in which Wendy talks about being a lesbian in order to connect with Elmer Wayne Henley. (Greg thinks it’s a brilliant piece of improv, not the truth. I want to say that Greg is actually as innocent and guileless as you imagine Holden to be when the show starts, but he is possibly a big BDSM guy. We never find out for sure.) There’s a new guy – Ted – supervising the BSU, and he is convinced that Holden is reckless but brilliant, and he quickly wipes away any humility brought on by his panic attack at the end of the first season. In a show of support for Holden’s genius, Ted gets them an interview with Charles Manson – who, as Wendy is at pains to point out, doesn’t fit with their dataset at all.
The show balances these different elements in a way that feels easy – it’s never like you’re trying to keep track, everything just flows together smoothly – but that so many shows can’t manage. It’s great television, pure and simple.
It’s not an unsatisfying way for the show to end, but it’s frustrating when it’s built like a show that can run for so much longer. I think often of how great shows of the past would fit the contemporary television mode: if Cheers, instead of running for eleven 24-or-so episode seasons, ran for two ten-episode ones – and so Kelsey Grammar never played Frasier and we never heard of Woody Harrelson. Star Trek: The Next Generation, the best show ever made, would never get a chance to even start to get good. Two seasons of The Sopranos would have still been a basically perfect show, but we’d never get to “Pine Barrens.” Mindhunter is a show that set out to take its time: throughout both seasons, we see tiny glimpses of the BTK Killer, and it feels like it’s building to something even though BTK wasn’t arrested until 2005, almost like it’s willing to commit to that kind of slow burn. But TV doesn’t get to take its time anymore. It shoots its shot and goes, easily consumed and easily discarded.
In some ways that’s what TV has always been; it’s light entertainment for passive consumption. But if you love TV, and I do, I really do, there’s a kind of despair in not at least getting to see how it might all play out.