Warning: This contains minor spoilers for Evil Genius.
“The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist” proclaims the subtitle of Netflix’s latest true crime documentary, Evil Genius, and it’s a series that actually lives up to that title.
Written and directed by Barbara Schroeder, the four-parter explores the truth behind an extraordinary criminal case, known as the “pizza bomber heist”, which saw a robbery go explosively wrong in Pennsylvania in 2003. It saw a man called Brian Wells walk into a bank with a gun, a series of written instructions, and collar around his neck containing a bomb. “There is only one way you can survive and that is to co-operate completely,” said the note.
It’s an attention-grabbing starting point for any TV series in 2018, and that same outlandish quality saw the story go viral over a decade ago, sparking a wave of media coverage. In the first episode, it becomes clear that the programme isn’t going to pull any punches, not only showing us the build-up to the event, but also the aftermath, as Wells’ collar did go off, killing him on camera.
It’s a sensationalist flourish, one that suggests Evil Genius isn’t going to be as deep as you might hope, and certainly isn’t going to criticise in-depth the way the heist was covered. Indeed, one montage of news headlines is the closest we get to a thought-provoking dissection of how the case was debated and portrayed around the world.
Instead, the series prefers to focus on the mastermind at the heart of it: Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong. A chilling cliffhanger tips us head-first into her bizarre life story, one that sees her go from clever university student to murder suspect. That’s thanks to the death of her ex-husband, James Roden, and her suspected involvement – just the tip of a disturbing iceberg. Our window into her tale comes from handyman Bill Rothstein, an ex-boyfriend of Marjorie, who also winds up a key figure in the heist’s plotting.
Diehl-Armstrong’s mental health becomes a fascinating central focus for the series’ halfway mark, although there’s a disappointing lack of nuance or discussion about how she was treated (or, more accurately, wasn’t) for her issues. Rather, the show prefers to salivate over the sordid details of her romantic history. That weak point, though, doesn’t last long, as the series returns to its primary topic: dissecting the step-by-step process that led to the heist.
It’s here that Evil Genius is at its best, as it picks apart just how intricate the bomb was – not necessarily because of its complexity, but because of the sheer number of red herrings in its casing, creating a forensic minefield for investigators. Most nail-biting of all is the way that we begin to question the degree to Wells’ involvement. Was he a victim? A collaborator? Or both?
Either way, it didn’t make a difference: he was decapitated by the police after the explosion, so they could examine the collar – “More respect was shown for the device than Brian’s body,” observes one commentator – and those callous, shocking details make for a compelling binge-watch that, at under four hours, smartly doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Evil Genius is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.