Thrilling and charming in a way that very few American comedies ever are.
In August 2003, a middle-aged pizza delivery man named Brian Wells robbed a bank in Erie, Pennsylvania with a bomb locked around his neck. When surrounded by police minutes later, it was revealed that Wells appeared to be a hostage to an unknown menace, and was expected to go on a type of sadistic scavenger hunt to find a key before the bomb went off. The bomb did go off, with news cameras rolling and police officers unable to stop it, and a tragic, bizarre whodunit was born. That’s just within the first half of the first episode of Netflix’s new docuseries, “Evil Genius,” which tells of a fascinating case, albeit not in a gripping way. You’re a hungry bunch, you true crime fans with your podcasts and docs, but both you and the stories themselves deserve a more challenging treatment than a dry, erratic recollection of events.
Before I go on, this is where I must preface that I have seen only the two episodes that Netflix provided, and am reviewing the four-part “Evil Genius” without knowing where it all ends. But as someone more than ready to find a new Netflix obsession, the project always felt like it wanted to be simply shocking, instead of challenging. It feels like a gravely missed opportunity, given the fascinating people, the events, and the various ideas of humanity that lurk around this true story. From writer/director Barbara Schroeder and executive producers Jay & Mark Duplass, “Evil Genius” is the case of true crime storytelling that can be too easily classified as merely satiating the supply-and-demand for such unconscionable tales.
There are a lot of interesting documentary subjects--one might even call them characters--within this story that is about much more than Wells’ murder. There’s Wells, who seemed like a nice, isolated man and loved his mother. But then there are the two larger-than-life people who could give this story its title, the unpredictable and imposing Bill Rothstein, and a woman who was known as a master manipulator, Majorie Diehl-Armstrong. We learn about her history of dead boyfriends, and her state of mental illness. Then we we find out about a body in her freezer.
An overall fuzzy image comes together of these people who live on the fringe of society, connecting with others through some wild relationships, and the series creates a striking idea of what people do in their quiet lives. But “Evil Genius” doesn’t encourage a deeper look into its people, instead relishing in the footage that they have of them, and showing their outsider nature as if they were narrative archetypes albeit with striking physical presences.
The case that unites them is undoubtedly bananas, but Schroeder’s take can be as enthralling as reading a long police procedural. In talking head interviews, cops and FBI agents recount the different parts of the investigation with great detail; the documentary’s method of pure information flattening the case’s many inherently striking aspects. “Evil Genius” is very much about savoring the facts, which makes for a few compelling passages about the highly unusual mechanics of the bomb that was attached to Wells. In other cases, the attention to archive findings and evidence treasures holds back the story’s rhythm, as with lengthy sequences that don’t make Bill or Marjorie more interesting, they just make them more time-consuming.
As it navigates what it wants to cover, “Evil Genius” has a problem with narrative focus. It’s clearly excited about this unimaginable chain of events and the people who might all be linked by it. But “Evil Genius” doesn’t build tension so much as become tedious, especially as it starts to expand by drawing some connections between the Wells murder and the awful things that Bill and Marjorie did. Even more, it has a curious investigator from a modern timeline who appears in the beginning of the first episode, and then as a voiceover sporadically, as if he’s the documentary's host, when it wants him to be. He’s meant to tie things together, but the way he's sporadically handled makes "Evil Genius" seem overbaked.
“Evil Genius,” languishes on the basic visual expectations for true crime documentaries, but tries to surpass them with its fixation on detail. Though some viewers might dig its junkie nature for such a true narrative, “Evil Genius” rarely makes a compelling argument with its storytelling that you should keep watching.
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