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‘Mindhunter’ review: An odd duck but potentially absorbing

David Fincher ("Seven") and Charlize Theron are the producers behind this Netflix drama about two FBI agents (Holt McCallany, Jonathan Groff) who try to get inside the minds of serial killers. It starts streaming Oct. 13. (Credit: Netflix)

THE SERIES “Mindhunter”

WHEN | WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Netflix.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Based on the 1995 memoir “Mind Hunter,” by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, this David Fincher adaptation of a script by British playwright Joe Penhall is about FBI agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), who joins its Behavioral Sciences Unit in 1977 with the intention of finding out what makes a serial killer (or, as he refers to them, “sequence killer”) tick. He’s joined by Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), founder of the unit, as they travel the country interviewing incarcerated murderers, including the worst of the worst. Douglas, who interviewed many serial killers in an ongoing academic effort to establish their habits and motives, has been portrayed fictionally in Thomas Harris’ “Red Dragon” and “The Silence of the Lambs,” as well as on various TV shows.

MY SAY Groff’s Holden Ford drinks milk from a bottle, drives an off-green Nova, wears a dark gray suit and has a chiseled square jaw. He’s a Dudley Do-Right, a Boy Scout, a complete square who is blue of eye, pure of heart and only marginally tougher than Mister Rogers. And yet this — THIS! — is supposed to be a portrait of the guy who interviewed more serial killers than anyone in history and who would become models for characters in “The Silence of the Lamb” and ”Criminal Minds”? Yes, this is the guy.

 Even Fincher seems bemused by the cognitive dissonance. The first episode is set in the mid-’70s, but the tone and texture are pure early-’60s TV atavism, back to when Robert Stack’s Eliot Ness was incorruptible and so were his “Untouchables.” Unless “Mindhunter” really is homage — unlikely — this lends it a certain ironic detachment that’ll keep you off balance while you try to figure out what really makes Holden tick. A word of advice: Do try to forget Groff’s most recent roles (“Looking,” “Glee”) while watching. That’ll just add to the dissonance (and irony).  

Yes, “Mindhunter,” like Ford, is an odd duck, but oddness is its virtue. Occasionally flat, intermittently horrific, it’s about the banality of evil — to use the famous Hannah Arendt line — and how one FBI agent determined that staring into the abyss was far preferable to averting the gaze. As Tench explains, “It’s 1977 and motive is elusive.” Staring may be the only option.

 Watching, meanwhile, is up to you. At least over the first two episodes (the only ones offered for review), Fincher offers a visually compelling reason to try.

BOTTOM LINE Occasionally flat, sporadically gruesome, “Mindhunter” is also potentially absorbing.

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