The name: Mindhunter. The location: FBI headquarters, Quantico, Virginia. The subject matter: grisly serial murders. The protagonists: hot young agent; grizzled vet agent.

Almost every component of Netflix's new crime drama sounds like cliched trash, a limp, decade-late follow-up to Criminal Minds (a show which, admittedly, was pulpy brilliance for a few years). And yet it takes those shopworn ingredients and gives us a fresh and unexpected show, one which focuses as much on theory and its evolution as the crime itself.

We open at a hostage situation in the late '70s. Braddock, Pennsylvania, as a big, blocky, cinematic type announces. The episode is directed and the series exec produced by David Fincher - the fact his previous foray into television was House of Cards might explain why this was greenlit a second series a full six months ahead of its weekend premiere.

It's a dusty warehouse by night. A gunman, off his meds and convinced he's invisible, is demanding to see his wife and threatening some very frightened people. The negotiator tries his best, but it does not end well.

Advertisement

The next scene takes place in an office, with Holden Ford (the negotiator's name - the showrunner is Australian; it's a classic gag for us down here) torn up by how it ended. He begins a slow, tentative foray into teaching, a branch of law enforcement seemingly better-suited to his overactive imagination, while also one that allows us to realise some of the fundamental dynamics of this criminal era.

It's the summer of Son of Sam in the late '70s, a decade dominated by serial killers and thrill killers. A professor asks: "Where do we go when motive becomes elusive?", and that really is what we're asking here. A new generation of criminals - inspired or repulsed by new social norms, covered in lurid detail by an evolving media - was sweeping the American landscape and imagination. The FBI was trying to catch them as if they were the victims' partners or a crank from across the street.

Which is to say that it's a show featuring unspeakable criminal acts, portrayed in graphic detail - but that these aren't central to its logic or appeal. The show has more in common with Mad Men or Masters of Sex than a procedural like Criminal Minds.

Yet it's also radically different from True Detective, too. Ford isn't an anti-hero, tortured and brooding, like we've grown used to finding in shows like this.

Instead he's a giant nerd, quoting Dostoevsky and Freud to these hostile small-town cops. Which is not to say that he lacks for nuance, but that it's refreshingly different to the hacky sub-Tony Soprano type we've grown weary of lately.

(Incidentally, I've just rewatched The Sopranos right through, and was shocked again by its quality - the show is better than almost everything which came after it, largely because its characters achieve their poetry without greedily grasping it at. Tony, in particular, is always mangling words and repeating the same corny phrases - he's a masterclass in deft and creative writing, when most of those who came after were much more 2D).

Along with the FBI line, Ford has a girlfriend, Debbie Mitford. She's a student and deeply suspicious of law enforcement, thanks largely to the social sciences she's studying. Yet it's through her that the rubber of the radical ideas of academia meets the road of the-then FBI. That institution, dominated for so long by the tyrannical and conservative presence of J. Edgar Hoover, was undergoing its own cultural revolution.

Mindhunter essentially tells that story - of the foundations of the kind of techniques we take for granted in film and television depictions of crime and its resolution. Thankfully it resists obvious and banal impulses in favour of a depiction altogether more complex and compelling.