Mindhunter just got Netflixed

It was the streamer's best original show. Now it's headed for the dustbin after only two seasons.

A scene from Mindhunter.
(Image credit: Courtesy of Netflix)

To paraphrase an old Yiddish proverb, man plans and Netflix laughs.

This week, TVLine reported that Mindhunter has been "put on indefinite hold and cast members Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, and Anna Torv have been released from their contracts." It's a familiar story for anyone who's allowed themselves to get attached to a Netflix original series over the past few years. Once lauded for its potential to reshape the TV landscape with niche offerings that didn't need to rely on traditional viewership metrics, Netflix is now changing television again. Only this time, it is leaving dozens of shows orphaned after only one or two seasons in a quest to hook restless viewers in an increasingly oversaturated and competitive market.

Netflix is still quick to distinguish that Mindhunter, unlike other recent casualties (The OA and Tuca & Bertie being the most widely-mourned examples), hasn't actually been canceled, per se. Rather, it is being set aside, possibly forever, as its executive producer David Fincher wraps up his Netflix film Mank and focuses on the second season of Love, Death, and Robots. "He may revisit Mindhunter again in the future," a company representative left open. Deadline paints a slightly different picture of those chances, with Nellie Andreeva writing that "[t]here has been chatter that Fincher was ... looking to raise the series' production value with a bigger budget. But I hear there has been no meaningful communication between Netflix, the director, and the cast about a third season."

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Mindhunter, though, had felt like something special. Focusing on the early days of the FBI's criminal psychology and profiling unit, the show used its second season to zero in on the Atlanta child murders, with future seasons potentially ready to take on the Green River Killer and the Butcher Baker. But beyond the focus of individual seasons, Mindhunter was intended to follow a five-season arc, with each episode contributing seconds-long footage to a growing portrait of its final possible "big bad," the BTK killer. It had been an intriguing premise — one that I wrote turned fans' own true-crime obsessions back against them — and it was one of Netflix's best constructed, best written, and best acted shows to date.

While it's true that in-demand directors and producers are often overextended and forced to abandon projects before they're completed, it's not like a third season of Mindhunter would have blindsided Fincher. What's more, Fincher is a veteran of Netflix television: his six-season House of Cards helped establish the streamer as a respectable studio way back in 2013, so he knew what he was committing to with his five-season proposal. But even with the door supposedly open for Fincher and Mindhunter to return down the road, with the actors now released from their contracts, they can potentially commit to other TV series, meaning if there ever were an opportunity to return, they might not even be available to do so.

If it weren't for the wishy-washy statement by Netflix, Mindhunter's cancellation would almost be expected at this point. Last year, Business Insider crunched the numbers and found that "[o]nly about a dozen Netflix originals lasted for more than three seasons. The majority ended after two or three." With a few notable exceptions like Grace and Frankie (seven seasons) and BoJack Horseman (six seasons), Netflix found that "long-running series aren't always valuable" for garnering subscribers; new, flashy, "it" shows that attract FOMO audiences are. Competing now against the likes of Disney, Apple, Amazon, and HBO Max, "[Netflix] needs to invest in originals like Stranger Things that people want to watch," writes The Verge, but "the more original shows Netflix orders, the more likely it is to cancel those that don't perform well." That's just business, but as every new season brings the threat of the chopping block, you can't help but wonder if any Netflix original can last much more than a few seasons again.

There is also the question of that rumored budget disagreement between Fincher and Netflix. "I hear at least some of the [Netflix] cancellations ... were prompted in part because the shows were deemed to have gotten too expensive," Andreeva wrote for Deadline in a separate article last spring about the Netflix "churn." She added that "Netflix's deals include bump/bonuses after each season that are getting progressively bigger." That would mean that Mindhunter was getting pricier at the same time Fincher was reportedly in "bigger budget talks," and shortly after which the show went on hiatus for the foreseeable future.

Whether Fincher truly wanted to move on to other things and not look back, or Netflix decided it didn't want to pay for Mindhunter anymore, someone somewhere along the line gave up on the company's best show. It was critically acclaimed and loved by audiences — it has a score of 97 percent and 95 percent respectively on Rotten Tomatoes — but it still didn't attract the same crowds as, say, the fictional serial killer drama You, which just achieved a coveted third season renewal from Netflix. And if Mindhunter couldn't make it, even backed by Fincher, what chance do likewise worthwhile, but even smaller shows have?

It's a pity: Netflix once seemed to be the bastion of niche television that couldn't exist on traditional channels. Now the company might be revealing its true colors: that it's just like everybody else, after all.

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