A pizza delivery man arrives at a bank in the small town of Erie, Pennsylvania, armed with a loaded gun disguised as a walking cane and a note demanding $250,000. He leaves calmly with a bag of cash, swinging his cane-gun like Charlie Chaplin. Minutes later, when caught by the police, he insists that he is a hostage and that the real villains have attached a bomb to his neck, which will go off any second if he doesn’t comply with their demands. A bomb squad is called, but before they arrive, it goes off.
This is the premise behind Evil Genius, a true-crime docuseries from Netflix exploring the 2003 “collar bomb” robbery. But this is not even the most bizarre moment of the show. Three weeks later, in a seemingly unrelated incident, police receive a call from a man named Bill Rothstein who says a body is in his freezer – and that his ex-girlfriend, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, is to blame.
Like many Netflix true-crime shows, Evil Genius positions itself as a successor to 2015’s wildly successful Making a Murderer, relying heavily on the genre’s tropes. Like Sarah Koenig’s Serial podcast, or Michelle McNamara’s book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, the obsessive reporter following the case (producer Trey Borzillieri) becomes a central character in the narrative.
The show shares Making a Murderer’s aesthetic – black-and-white photos, a police evidence board – and though the original case only happened 15 years ago, archive footage is made to look older. Evil Genius doesn’t raise the social questions of Making a Murderer or Serial, and it’s arguably an exploitative portrait of mental illness. But it knows it is more scandalous and less wide-reaching, restricting itself to just four 50-minute episodes. If you want a gripping, at times frustratingly odd story told well, Evil Genius does the job.
This article appears in the 30 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, God isn’t dead