Some of Netflix’s true-crime series start with a fascinating case, then expand their focus to engage with larger social issues: Making A Murderer and corruption, for example, or The Keepers and institutional memory. However, in its newest binge-worthy miniseries, Evil Genius: The True Story Of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist—at least, in the two episodes of the series made available for review—the streaming service has decided to eschew deeper meaning, and just take viewers on a ride.
The story begins on August 28, 2003, when 46-year-old pizza delivery driver Brian Wells was recorded on security cameras walking into the PNC Bank on Peach Street in Erie, Pennsylvania with a strange, bulky object under the collar of his white Guess T-shirt. He presented a pre-written note to a teller explaining that the object was a collar bomb, and demanded $250,000. When the bank was unable to produce the full amount in the stated 15-minute time frame, Wells exited the building with a bag containing about $8,000. He then sat down in the parking lot between two squad cars, told assembled officers that two men had strapped the bomb to his neck after he was called to deliver a pizza to a remote radio tower, and, when the bomb detonated, died in full view of local news cameras while the bomb squad was stuck in traffic.
This all occurs within the first half-hour of the first episode. Soon, it’s revealed that Wells had been sent out on a sadistic “scavenger hunt” with pages of hand-written instructions leading him along a route that, as investigators discover when they drive it, could never have been completed before the bomb went off. Before long, another employee at the same pizza restaurant was dead, the FBI had upgraded the robbery to Major Case No. 203, and international media had taken notice of what appeared to be the work of a diabolical criminal genius. And that’s before the Erie police got a tip about a body in a freezer suspiciously close to the starting line of the fatal game Wells was forced to play.
That particular revelation comes at the end of the first episode, which posits a local woman named Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, an intelligent and alluring personality in her youth whose struggle with mental illness had come to dominate her life, as the killer. By the end of the second episode, that’s been totally reversed, and the documentary questions if William “Bill” Rothstein, a close friend of Diehl-Armstrong’s who seemed to carry a torch for her, murdered her boyfriend, James Roden, and framed her for the crime out of spite. That’s what Marjorie claims in a call to the filmmakers from prison, anyway, where she promises to reveal what really happened—on the next episode, of course.
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This steady drip of information—midway through the series, there are several important characters still to be introduced—is pretty standard for the true-crime documentary subgenre, which thrives on juicy details and stunning reversals. Directors Trey Borzillieri and Barbara Schroeder display an impressive command of pacing, meting out new facts and suspects with steady aplomb; less thrilling are the talking-heads and stock-footage visuals and cable-ready cliffhanger structure of the series as a whole. That being said, for many true-crime fans, those familiar elements—the ominous time-lapse shots of the local police station, the staticky garble of voices on a 911 call—are the TV equivalent of comfort food.
Rothstein died in 2004, and, as is established very early on, even though Borzillieri corresponded with Diehl-Armstrong about her case for more than a decade before Evil Genius began filming in 2013, questions about her mental health make her an unreliable narrator. And rather than examining why everyone in her life found the seemingly sociopathic Diehl-Armstrong so compelling à la Wild Wild Country’s deep dive into the character of Ma Anand Sheela, the filmmakers opt instead to play whack-a-mole with the gang of petty criminals and brilliant weirdos who drift in and out of the narrative. In short, Evil Genius is the kind of documentary that lives and dies by its story. Luckily, it’s a compelling one.