'Evil Genius': TV Review

More real-life documentary drama from the Duplass brothers.
5/11/2018

Netflix's latest true-crime documentary series has a bizarre case, a colorful cast of characters and an obsessed co-director, making for intriguing drama.

More than a decade after they began building a brand around the comedy of banality, Jay and Mark Duplass are enjoying a season of rebranding as Netflix's curators of real-life bizarreness.

Duplass Brothers Productions added its executive producing imprimatur to Maclain and Chapman Way's Wild Wild Country, and the six-part documentary series has become one of the spring's few word-of-mouth sensations. I'm doubtful that the Duplasses' new Netflix crime documentary series, Evil Genius, has the depth to generate quite the same adulation, but it certainly features enough head-scratching twists and storytelling quirks to get people talking.

Directed by Barbara Schroeder, with Trey Borzillieri credited as co-director, this four-part series boasts the unwieldy full title of Evil Genius: The True Story of America's Most Diabolical Bank Heist and functions as a strange turducken of a tale.

If you're a fan of true-crime TV sagas, you may already know the story of Erie, Pennsylvania's so-called "pizza bomber" case. In 2003, a man named Brian Wells walked into an Erie bank with a cane and what appeared to be a bomb cuffed to his neck. He claimed he was following the instructions provided in a detailed note leading him to a series of locations, at the end of which he'd get the bomb removed. Instead, he ended up in a standoff with state police, who weren't necessarily sure if the bomb was even real. Before the bomb squad could arrive, with a variety of cameras watching, the device went off. It was very real. Wells was killed without reaching the end of a weirdly elaborate scavenger hunt, without being able to give any answers about the person or people who made him part of this heist, without anybody knowing when, exactly, his involvement began.

For the better part of two episodes, Evil Genius is an outlandish version of the sort of journalistic crime exposé you'd see on Dateline or 48 Hours, a better sourced version of the sort of extreme crime tale you might get on Investigation Discovery or the rebranded Oxygen. The episodes' meat and potatoes are interviews with most of the primary law enforcement figures on the case, including the FBI and ATF agents in charge, the county coroner and at least one local reporter who covered the case. Providing spice is an eccentric cast of suspects and tangential characters — an assortment of incarcerated henchmen, crackheads, prostitutes and self-described masterminds, seemingly all living in rundown apartments last cleaned in the '80s. Towering over the entire mystery is Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, brilliant and bipolar, a terrifying woman with tractor-beam eyes and more than a few suspicious deaths floating amid her past.

This first episode of Evil Genius is mostly the objective story from the outside. It's elevated by all the primary sourcing, but it isn't appreciably different from what luminaries like Geraldo Rivera were doing when they reported the story initially.

The next two episodes are where the show becomes unique, and where viewers are likely to go from casually interested in the oddness of it all to gripped.

The series' second half is Borzillieri's tale, because apparently he began a letter-writing and collect-calling relationship with Diehl-Armstrong, and their recorded calls and a single quid pro quo filmed conversation become the spine of the story. Borzillieri's interest in the case leads him to a parallel investigation and interviews with many of the darker figures, some of whom are able to approach a filmmaker with more candor than they might have provided somebody with a badge.

Borzillieri's crusading intensity is the best part of Evil Genius. He's dogged, and as long as he doesn't know everything about how Wells came to be in the bank in August 2003, he refuses to accept that a case authorities effectively view as closed is really closed. Borzillieri's commitment and the access he obtains make these episodes intense and uncomfortable, showcasing a parade of scuzzy and unreliable narrators.

Borzillieri's crusading intensity is also the most frustrating part of Evil Genius, because it confuses the authorship and focus of the entire series.

Almost any good ongoing series of this type is going to be characterized by the passion of the people telling the story. There's no inherent reason, though, why those filmmakers and their obsession need to be an acknowledged part of the story. The directors of Netflix predecessors The Keepers and Making a Murderer and Wild Wild Country were undoubtedly obsessed. You just rarely, if ever, see or hear them. That's totally fine.

But if a filmmaker is going to become a character in a documentary, they can't be a half-developed character. Sarah Koenig's personality drives the first season of Serial, and she's consistently interrogating her instincts about Adnan Syed. The discomfort of Andrew Jarecki's relationship with Robert Durst is acknowledged and fuels every interaction they have in The Jinx. The dangers of getting close to your subject are built into the text.

I don't think Borzillieri is a bad filmmaker (and I don't know the logistics of the workflow or how Schroeder came to have a superseding credit on the series), but he's surely a character in Evil Genius, and he's a thin character. He's a guy who became interested in the case and inserted himself in it. It was a sensationalistic story that interested many people. Why did he become so engaged? How did he develop this relationship with Diehl-Armstrong? When did he come to the conclusions that drive his pursuit, particularly as it plays out in the fourth episode? Borzillieri isn't just trying to get to the truth in the case; he's trying to get to a single, specific truth that he has determined is the necessary answer. This compromises his objectivity. It compromises the effectiveness of his interview questions, which reflect things he believes unquestioningly and are marred by poor follow-up. He's not a cop. He's also not a journalist. What is he?

Borzillieri is getting screen time that Evil Genius could otherwise have spent concentrating on a more nuanced and rounded portrait of Erie and the context of the crime. It's good that the show doesn't hide Borzillieri's perspective, nor the many times Diehl-Armstrong refers to the type of film she thinks he's making and its potential biases. But it's disappointing that the documentary doesn't try to understand or explain Borzillieri better. It's so strange to hear how matter of fact the professionals on the case are about the trail they've followed for a year compared to Borzillieri's far hotter blood. What are the different responsibilities between professional law enforcement and an amateur crusader in situations like this? What advantages and disadvantages might Borzillieri have? Should that matter to viewers of a true-crime series?

Maybe the story within the story of Evil Genius is what brings it down; maybe it's what makes it special. Either way, I think it's why viewers who stumble upon Evil Genius when the Netflix algorithm suggests it will have a hard time turning away.

Premieres: May 11 (Netflix)