As a genre, true crime has been around for at least a century. Yet within the past few years there has been a surge of the gruesome and grotesque tales across all media. You’d think being reminded of our mortality and the evil in the world would turn people away but we instead become more interested.
It seems like everyone and their dog has a podcast and so many of those are trying to capture the same lightning in a bottle that Sarah Koening’s “Serial” did in 2014. The first season captivated listeners with the 1999 murder trial of Hae Min Lee and the question of Adnan Syed’s innocence. It didn’t just open the doors for podcasts about the podcast, but it inspired people to broadcast their own true crime stories.
On the other hand, crime procedurals have been around forever on television. Though they pretty much always end with the good guys catching the bad ones, the programs eventually took a darker turn with shows like “The Fall,” "Luther" and “Criminal Minds.” Knowing what “Serial” did for the podcast medium, executives have attempted to tap into the trend with the Emmy-winning “American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson” the currently-airing “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders.” Both series use an anthology format, meaning each season will be a different case like the death of Gianni Versace.
Instead of using actors, streaming site Netflix got in on the action in 2015 with their “Making a Murder” documentary about the wrongful conviction of Steven Avery. Two years later the site released a seven-episode documentary about the unsolved murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik in Baltimore.
Netflix is tackling murder and mystery once again, though in a more fictionalized manner, with Mindhunter. Set in 1977, the show follows Jonathan Groff’s Holden Ford and Holt McCallany’s Bill Tench as agents in the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. Yet, because this is the 70s, the art of profiling subjects is just as mysterious as a killer’s motivations.
The early episodes have the pair explaining to regular cops that crime isn’t as clear as it used to be. A murderer was almost always known by the victim and had a somewhat logical reason to commit the crime. Now, detectives are faced with someone killing random strangers without rhyme or reason and with very unusual M.O.s. They invent a new term specifically for them: “sequence killers.”
One theory for the deviancy is that turmoil begets turmoil and it’s difficult to get more tumultuous than the counterculture era and following years. The public is still dealing with the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the assassination of JFK, the National Guard killing students at Kent State University and the Watergate scandal. Ongoing are the energy crisis and the Cold War.
Running out of leads, Ford and Tench interview incarcerated murderers to help them understand how serial killers think. Ford, previously a hostage negotiator, uses his skills of bargaining and empathizing in order to get them to cooperate with law enforcement. "How do we get ahead of crazy if we don't know what crazy is?" asks Ford. Just like Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling gleaning useful information from Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs,” the dialogue creates tense and unsettling moments.
While learning about the true crimes of Edmund Kemper and Jerry Brudos is entertaining, the show shines in highlighting the chemistry between the eager Ford and grizzled Tench. It’s a familiar buddy cop trope but it goes deeper. McCallany, who worked with the show’s director David Fincher in “Fight Club,” gives layers to his character, showing that he isn’t as set in his ways as he seems. Meanwhile Groff portrays an agent that’s daring at work but timid, nerdy and troubled at home. Their tangible relationship, reminiscent of Mulder and Scully from “The X-Files,” is the soul of the show. Joined with excellent direction and cinematography, some of the best scenes are the pair sharing an elevator.
I can only guess the reasons behind the spike in the genre’s popularity. Like the detectives the audience is just as morbidly curious as to what drives a person to end another’s life. Additionally, the current political climate has its fair share of turmoil and, oddly enough, using artificially induced anxiety is pretty effective to cancel out real life anxiety. All I know is that I’ll be watching season two with rapt attention.