One of the most significant things to hit the web last week was the trailer of Mank. Global Film Twitter went into overdrive, and understandably so. Think of the context. This was American director extraordinaire David Fincher’s first movie since Gone Girl (2014), so it was a long-awaited return of sorts. Add this to the fact that Mank is a black-and-white movie about the movies – a biographical drama anchored by screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s battles with Orson Welles over screenplay credit for Citizen Kane – and that Fincher’s latest passion project is based on his late father’s screenplay. The hype machine is oiled and ready to fire.
Yet, only a day later, the excitement for Mank was replaced by the grief for Mindhunter. In a fascinating Vulture interview, Fincher, who served as an executive producer, director and de facto showrunner of Mindhunter, confirmed that there is likely to be no third season of the acclaimed true-crime thriller. The second season dropped on Netflix last September, two years after the first. Most Mindhunter fans had suspected the worst ever since the contracts of the cast weren’t renewed earlier this year. With Fincher looking to concentrate on Mank, the series was indefinitely put on hold. The global pandemic, of course, added to the uncertainty. Which is to say that the signs were there. So the show’s demise was no blinding bolt from the blue. But the real reasons are unsettling.
In the interview, the director admits that the extensively researched series – based on the formation and functioning of FBI’s elite Behavioral Science Unit through the late 1970s and 1980s – was too financially and psychologically demanding. Fincher mentioned that his life had been consumed by 90-hour work weeks over four years in Pittsburgh. (Mindhunter nerds might be tempted to equate Fincher’s predicament with veteran detective Bill Tench’s in the second season – Tench burns out by flying between a family crisis in Virginia and the case in Atlanta.). But most importantly, Fincher mentioned a “lack of eyeballs”. The viewership of Mindhunter, irrespective of its near-cult status on the web, was evidently not enough to inspire its own creators to continue the journey. In short, it’s that age-old conflict: Low returns on investment. Risks not worth the reward. The “back to square one” vibe is undeniable.
Fincher’s words cut deeper than normal, because many of us expected the streaming ecosystem to circumvent this conflict. We weren’t naive enough to believe in a utopian and numberless world where every creative leap of faith and experimental voice would be allowed to flourish. But the prevailing question at the moment seems to be: If not Mindhunter, then who? However, the existence of Mindhunter in 2017, back when it premiered, is very different from the existence of Mindhunter in 2020. The viewer base has exponentially expanded, and with such expansion come the same old audience-catering pressures. Consequently, most of the titles trending these days have either sex or studio heft in common. The people at home aren’t very different from the people who throng cinema halls.
But most of us were conditioned to alter our artistic sensibilities depending on where we consumed the art. We craved for something more distinct and remote on the internet, while the big screen satisfied our comfort-food and event fixations. But with the pandemic entirely eliminating one option, we can no longer afford to compartmentalize these two versions. All sensibilities have been forced to co-exist and jostle for space. And when faced with the choice of easy entertainment during a year that has resembled a bleak arthouse thriller, it’s only human to pick a 365 Days over a Mindhunter. Prioritizing an escape within our homes is natural instinct, as a result of which “heaviness” might not be a first-choice theme for platforms henceforth.
When faced with the choice of easy entertainment during a year that has resembled a bleak arthouse thriller, it’s only human to pick a 365 Days over a Mindhunter. Prioritizing an escape within our homes is natural instinct, as a result of which “heaviness” might not be a first-choice theme for platforms henceforth
We are also not naive enough to believe that ending Mindhunter is a ruthless corporate decision. Fincher’s restlessness to return to the comforting folds of film is a major factor, and one that his self-serious fanclubs are likely to celebrate. The two landscapes are mutually exclusive, and Fincher’s artistic legacy has become so invaluable over the years that him “choosing” one medium implies that the world is being denied his vision of the other. I’ve known of people who have been so resentful of Mindhunter eating into crucial years of Fincher’s movie career that they’ve refused to watch the show as a mark of protest. The popular sentiment seems to be that no matter how good Series Fincher is, Film Fincher is older, cooler and more necessary. The subtext, though, is that Film Fincher is also more prolific and visible.
Shows get cancelled for similar reasons all the time, but the loss of Mindhunter feels like a dent in history. Mindhunter had become emblematic of a niche narrative space that distinguished the small screen of the web from the small screen of television. It was so uniquely positioned at the intersection of fiction, non-fiction and cinema that even the Emmys failed to understand the dry, slow-burning genius of the series. Both seasons were nominated for one low-profile award each: guest acting, and cinematography for a single-camera setup. While we rooted for the Successions, Ozarks and Crowns at the Primetime Emmys last month, it escaped our attention that Mindhunter was not – and has never been – in the running for the main prizes. It seems absurd now, and I can’t help but wonder if an Emmy or four might have convinced Fincher and Netflix to renew their vows. But maybe it’s romantic to believe that, for once, a series was too good for its own good.
Last year, after savour-watching Season 2 of Mindhunter, I wrote about its “inert backroom-ness”. The gist of the piece was the academic tone of Mindhunter, which was essentially a petty procedural war under the guise of an atmospheric detective thriller. It’s not a snapshot of heroism so much as a brick-and-mortar construction of the language of heroism. Much of the series has the three protagonists, Detective Ford, Tench and Wendy Carr, constantly struggling to overcome their status as glorified data collectors. They are in fact the pioneers of modern criminal profiling, but the micro frustrations of the 80s American law enforcement system force the series to defy the stylistic excesses of the archetypical jaded-cop narrative. At no point does it seem like they are pathbreakers in control of the field they’ve invented. Eventually, this is what made – makes – Mindhunter so special. It’s a story of roots: not of a family or a culture, but of an intellectual revolution. As a result, it becomes the Ground Zero of the serial-killer genre: challenging to watch, exhilarating to experience.
More than anything, Mindhunter was the anti-dramatization of time. Most works of art are judged by their relationship with time – some are behind the ball, some ahead. But it’s time, with all its vagaries, that inevitably let Mindhunter down. It wasn’t so much a tired Fincher, a cautious Netflix or the callous new-age viewer. In a year marked by death and tragedy, the cultural demise of a “web series” might seem like a footnote. But whereas humans die, it’s the prospect of mental evolution – humanity itself – that dies with the end of beginnings like Mindhunter. Maybe it’s fitting that 2020 is when the mind surrendered the luxury to hunt for higher ground.