In a brooding drama of serial killers and internal FBI politics, you might not expect to find yourself aroused. And were you to go by the trailers for Mindhunter (the second season now streaming on Netflix) you might think it was pretty-boy Jonathan Groff, playing the brilliant and obsessive Agent Holden Ford, who commands any sexual attention from the show’s audience.
But you’d be wrong on both counts. Despite the grim and often grisly subject matter of Mindhunter, people are quite turned on by one of its male leads — and I don’t mean Groff. No, the fans only have eyes for the older, beefier, square-haired Agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany).
Broadly speaking, the series charts the true origins of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit through the 1970s and 1980s, guided by Agent Ford’s idea of interviewing notorious murderers in prison. In Season One, Agent Tench becomes his partner on the project — the experienced realist to Ford’s fevered genius. Sometimes he plays skeptic to Ford’s flights of fancy, a bit like Scully did with Mulder in The X-Files. More commonly, though, he’s clarifying and enhancing the unit’s value and purpose, or drawing Ford back from a morbid infatuation with the fetishistic minds of mass murderers. He’s also the one holding down a “normal” home life in the suburbs: a wife and son, backyard barbecues, his fridge full of cold, domestic beer. What’s not to love?
“The attraction is born out of the mix of his traditionally masculine shell and sweet softie underbelly,” says comedian Ellie McElvain, one of dozens of Tench fans (Tenchies?) who messaged me on Twitter when I asked to hear about lusty feelings for the character. This is a sentiment I heard a lot: that while everything about McCallany’s appearance and role on Mindhunter telegraphs “gruff cop,” he turns out to be disarmingly kind. As such, he’s an appealing model for how a certain sensitivity and the masculine norms of past generations aren’t necessarily at odds.
“He’s both firm and decisive in the face of danger or horror, but very open about being out of his depth,” McElvain continues. Still, the solidity is nice: “I think in these trying times, it’s nice to lust after someone who could actually protect you. I would love to have Tench throw me over his shoulder to get to higher ground in the coming climate apocalypse.”
Writer Elena Nicolaou draws a telling contrast between Tench and the men of other historical TV, who tend to veer more easily into toxic territory. “I definitely think I’m attracted to some ‘conventional’ old-world masculine qualities he has,” she says. “He’s tough, quiet, definitely has good survival skills.” But these aren’t “used to excuse bad behavior as we see in some other Netflix period pieces like Stranger Things and GLOW,” where misogyny and other problematic attitudes are dismissed as being “of the era.” Nicolaou also admires how Tench always places the greatest importance on family, not work: “What man in the 1970s does that? He’s the anti-Don Draper. Even though his wife gives him a hard time, he really is prioritizing his family. It’s hard to balance the world! It seems to be a good depiction of the lose-lose of working parenthood.”
While Tench isn’t short on superficially magnetic qualities — folks mentioned his deep, soothing voice (ideal for narration), his “nice” or “sad” eyes and his thick, rectangular build — it seems to be his competence and paternal calm that earn him the most adulation. About his physical presence, writer Nicole Cliffe says, “he’s just very hot, which I cannot entirely explain,” adding that “he might not know about eating pussy, but if he tried, he’d really be good at it.” What she’s especially drawn to, however, is the effort he makes, and the way he tries to resist apathy. “He wants so much to be a good man,” she says. “And the show is good at demonstrating that there is a non-toxic way to possess and represent classic ‘masculine’ virtues, while also showing their failure mode: drinking, an unmet need to share his working life with his wife, the difficulty of connecting with a son who isn’t an assembly-line son.”
Tench’s directness in dealing with those problems is striking in itself, as writer Julia Piper notes: “I love [his] no-bullshit attitude. He is so straightforward in such a comforting way. Also, he looks like he would give a solid hug and has excellent dad energy without reminding me of my own dad in any way. 10/10 yes please.”
Film critic Esther Rosenfield puts it this way: “[Tench’s] demeanor is a big factor. He’s very stern but in a nevertheless friendly way, very confident but he never quite comes off as annoyingly patronizing. It’s a masculinity that’s juuuust behind the line into problematic, in a likable way.”
Of course, that steady strength would mean little without a sense of generosity, and Tenchies are quick to observe how readily he can empathize. Cliffe mentions Tench’s kindness, “which he gives so much to victims and has often so little leftover for his family.” Grad student Myles Sauer sees this in both the procedural and domestic scenes: “I like how Tench could’ve been, in a lesser show, a very Hank Schrader [of Breaking Bad] sort of asshole, casually misogynist but still out to get the bad guys.” But instead, he says, “there’s a sensitivity to him that’s evident when it comes to his kid and especially [his wife] Nancy. The way he calmly handles all the interactions with police (because that’s his world and he knows how it works) is really nice to watch.”
Indeed, it’s as if Tench is able to truly see the regular people Ford is likely to alienate. Yet Tench comes to us in that same package of “regularity” — one that in other circumstances we could ignore as bland and dull. Some find it difficult to reconcile their excitement for it.
Like Ellie McElvain, who characterized Tench as something of a lighthouse in a storm, writer Lisa Shininger is into his dependable nature. “Like, [Ford] is a genius or whatever, but he’s all over the place,” she says. “Tench is a smart guy, too, but more importantly, he’s not all over the place. He has routines and normalcy he tries to establish; he is doing a job, and he wants to wrap it up tidily. Ten years ago I’d have been like, ugh boring, but now I’m like, yeah, that’s the guy. He probably pays the mortgage three days early!”
Whether it’s the chaotic state of America in 2019, the timeless pleasure of watching a canny detective at work or a burgeoning maturity in viewers themselves, Tench opens up the erotic possibilities of, well, capable hands. As one admirer says in a Twitter DM: “Bill has them sleepy eyes and taking care of all your shit while you’re home sick in bed dad vibe!” It doesn’t seem to matter that he’s a fed, either — in fact, maybe he’s exactly the surrogate FBI crush we need now that #Resistance thirst for Special Counsel Robert Mueller has fizzled. The fantasy of a man who wields authority in patient, constructive and tender ways? That’ll always be hot. Or, as my friend Kallen says of Tench: “He’ll buy me ice cream when I’m being a bad boy.”
Great, now I’m horny, too.