Netflix's 'Mindhunter' returns

Audiences crave crime drama, ratings show

By Brian Lowry, CNN
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

(CNN) - Serial killers will be all over TV this weekend, which isn't particularly unusual these days. Yet the latest mini-wave devoted to the most sordid murderers -- including the return of Netflix's "Mindhunter" -- underscores the tension between feeding fascination with the topic and inadvertently glamorizing it.

The summer has already produced a robust discussion over "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood," director Quentin Tarantino's film that draws much of its sizzle from the heinous crimes associated with Charles Manson 50 years ago. This weekend features more dives into history, with "Mindhunter" -- Netflix's series inspired by the FBI profilers who actually coined the term "serial killer" in the 1970s -- and "Mind of a Monster," an Investigation Discovery series that kicks off with a two-hour episode devoted to Ted Bundy.

ID, of course, is only one of several cable networks immersed in salacious crime. In addition, FX network recently announced an expansion of its lineup with several docu-series, including "The Most Dangerous Animal of All," based on Gary L. Stewart's book that maintains his biological father was the Zodiac killer.

There are also plenty of fictional killers to augment the real ones, such as Fox's upcoming series "Prodigal Son," about an FBI agent whose father is a notorious serial killer -- the basic premise being what would it be like if Hannibal Lecter turned out to be your dad.

Inspired by actual events, the first season of "Mindhunter" (the second wasn't made available for review) focused on the FBI's Holden Ford (played by Jonathan Groff), who sought to understand what motivates serial killers, in part by developing a rapport with them in jail.

The most compelling scenes involve Ford's interviews with Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton), who talks in a calm, almost clinical manner about the grisly murders he committed, sounding eager to share his crimes in vivid detail.

"Mindhunter's" creative team includes David Fincher, whose directing credits include "Zodiac," the chilling 2007 movie about the journalist who sought to crack the Zodiac case.

Nevertheless, the discomfort triggered by such material occasionally boils over, including earlier this year regarding the movie "Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile," starring Zac Efron as Bundy. Critics voiced concern that the film glamorized the serial killer, who was separately chronicled in a four-part Netflix documentary, "Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes," which also made its debut in January.

Obviously, networks and distributors wouldn't bankroll such content if there wasn't a loyal, even burgeoning audience for true crime, so the public's complicity can't be overlooked. The question lingers, however, whether it's possible to spend so much time examining what makes serial killers tick without slipping from natural curiosity into romanticizing them through sheer overexposure.

Like the Netflix documentary, "Mind of a Monster" features interviews with Bundy, as well as interviews with law-enforcement personnel and survivors. The documentary concludes with the media circus that surrounded his execution, and a photo gallery of his victims.

In a 2018 column for Variety, Debra Tate, the sister of Manson family victim Sharon Tate and a victims-rights advocate, contended that the entertainment industry was guilty of glorifying Tate's killers, having "helped them reach almost mythic status by churning out seemingly never-ending anniversary shows, recordings of Manson's music, books, television programs, movies and documentaries."

If such projects were once a trickle, with the high demand for content, it's now a wave. And while the tide ebbs and flows, as the above examples attest, it never ends.

"Mindhunter" season 2 premieres Aug. 16 on Netflix. "Ted Bundy: Mind of a Monster" premieres Aug. 18 at 9 p.m. on Investigation Discovery.

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