It’s a good time to be a serial killer—on the screen, anyway. BBC America’s Killing Eve is a consensus critical favorite at a time when no one can agree on anything. The show portrays the baroque murders of hired gun Villanelle (a delightfully wild-eyed Jodie Comer) mostly as opportunities for morbid humor, with her kills admired by Sandra Oh’s detective Eve Polastri—and, in turn, the audience—more as art than tragedy. Or you can feast your eyes on the recently concluded first season of HBO’s Barry, whose titular hitman, played by Bill Hader, has you rooting for his getaway even as the bodies—of cartel operatives and wayward innocents alike—pile up. In this, Barry follows in the footsteps of Amazon’s excellent, too-little-watched Patriot, whose second season is due later this year; there, too, you might find yourself improbably dazzled by all the extralegal garroting. Murderers need not be fictional to get the prestige treatment: Netflix’s Mindhunter drew out its depictions of real-life serial killers not exactly in flattering terms—I will never look at a shoebox quite the same way again—but at least in ones that emphasize their sophistication. We arrive, more or less, at the same position Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany’s FBI agents find themselves at: People capable of such violence are worthy of intensive study. Perhaps even obsession.
Into this milieu comes Evil Genius, a four-part documentary released this month on Netflix. It’s the latest work from the Duplass brothers, and explores an unresolved 2003 bank robbery widely popularized at the time as the “pizza bomber” case. The robbery’s details read like something out of Saw (which, incidentally, landed in theaters the following year): On August 28, 2003, a pizza delivery man named Brian Wells walked into a bank in Erie, Pennsylvania, wearing a T-shirt with the word “GUESS” painted on it and what looked like a large metal collar. Carrying a cane that would later turn out to be an improvised gun, he demanded cash. He was apprehended shortly after leaving, at which point he informed the police that the collar around his neck was a bomb that would go off unless he completed a scavenger hunt around Erie. It exploded not long after, killing Wells. No one was ever charged in his murder, and the degree of his involvement with the robbery itself remains a subject of debate. The mystery picks up here: Who, the documentary asks, could possibly have engineered something so violent and complex but some sort of evil genius?
It’s often said that Peak TV has a tendency to lionize criminals, using their violence—fictional and real—as evidence of cunning villainy and twisted ideology. Whether it’s Breaking Bad’s Walter White or The Jinx’s Robert Durst, we tend to view these criminals as dark puzzles, more antihero than villain.
That’s not the case with Evil Genius, seemingly in spite of its creators’ intentions. Without giving too much away, we quickly meet a motley crew of possible conspirators. But this is no cabal of enigmatic nemeses. Their realities are a whole lot darker—riddled with addiction, poverty, and mental illness, and shaped by jail sentences.
One suspect, the narrator informs us, enjoys being in prison because he has been forced into sobriety; another is referred to as Wells’s “favorite prostitute.” The focal point of the documentary is Erie native Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, who is, we learn, both cruel and intelligent, a one-time academic standout who was found, together with a former fiancé, responsible for the murder of her ex-boyfriend shortly after Wells’s death. But she also suffers from severe and sporadically treated mental illness, her home found packed with rotting food and dead animals; we learn that she smelled so bad during her arrest that the officer driving her to the police station was nearly ill. Evil Genius’s grand revelation—the confession that ostensibly serves as the series’s raison d’être—is more of the same, desperation and dire living conditions colliding on one national spotlight–stealing day. The whole thing is far sadder than it is mysterious.
“We shouldn’t be talking about a collar bomber,” a lawyer who once represented Diehl-Armstrong says at one point. “We shouldn’t be talking about FBI agents and ATF agents. She should have been confined. She was sick, she was disturbed, and anybody that was around her knew that.”
He was speaking about the Wells case: The lawyer had repeatedly attempted to have his client, whom he dubbed “my punishment on Earth,” committed. But the same might go for the Evil Genius project as a whole. There’s simply no there there.
Bill Hader has spoken about his desire to avoid hyping the uglier elements of Barry. “I don’t think the show in any way glorifies violence or makes that stuff look cool,” he told The New York Post in April, stressing that the Barry character is “not a good person.” But spend a moment poking around the show’s coverage and you’ll find more than a little appreciation of the character’s ruthlessness. Hader, like David Chase did before him as audiences cheered on Tony Soprano’s most vicious moments, can insist we’re reading the show wrong all he likes, but he can’t change what happens once it leaves his hands.
Killing Eve and Barry play up most of their assassins’ murders as occasions for absurdity, remorseless flicks of the wrist slipped between pink tulle and wrestling Marine Corps buddies—how very bizarre, these shows seem to suggest, to kill somebody. It feels OK to laugh, perhaps even to cheer, as unlucky cast members fall to the ground—so what if the killers are glamorized when the glamour itself is so preposterous?
Evil Genius isn’t positioned as counterprogramming to any of that, but while the phrase “evil genius” might call up images of glamour, the documentary itself has none to offer. In the real-life acts of the people who brought about Wells’s death, we see a kind of truth-as-antidote that is all too rare in this age of shadowy assassins. It’s not diabolical scheming. It’s simply very sad.