30 Minutes or Less is one of the most forgettable comedies of the 21st century. The 2011 film stars Jesse Eisenberg as a pizza delivery man taken hostage and forced to rob a bank with a bomb strapped to his chest. The premise is ridiculous, what is even more insane is that it’s based off a true story.
Netflix’s new docuseries Evil Genius is the dissection of that true story: “The Pizza Bomber Heist” of Erie, Pennsylvania. On August 28, 2003, Brian Wells was delivering a pizza to 8631 Peach Street. After getting to the location, he was coerced to participate in a convoluted criminal scavenger hunt that to this day has never been completely solved. A homemade bomb collar was strapped to his neck with brazenly specific instructions on how to carry out a bank robbery in town. Without spoiling the series too much (a series based on a true news story that happened 15+ years ago), the plan does not work and the bomb does go off, murdering Wells.
What makes Evil Genius compelling is its tendency to subvert normal expectations of a run-of-the-mill whodunnit. The police only have a victim and the notes he was given. Instead of chasing shadows and leading wild goose chases for the whole series, suspects reveal themselves like worms after a rainstorm.
A man by the name of Bill Rothstein calls the authorities and reports of a dead body in his freezer. According to him, he was only helping a friend: Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong.
Diehl-Armstrong, for the lack of a better term, is the star of Evil Genius. She is a slithery, loquacious Erie resident whose house is full of loose debris, feces, and government cheese. Almost every man she has been romantically involved with has died for bizarre reasons. She also admittedly has suffered from mental illness her entire life, never receiving the proper treatment (a subject that Evil Genius only grazes past, to its detriment). Most importantly, when asked to describe her, Rothstein says, “She is extremely intelligent. Extremely intelligent.”
The series slowly expands its cast of characters, all with the common connection of being manipulated in some way by Diehl-Armstrong. Authorities make mistakes, the case drags on, but the documentary itself stays quick. The hooks concluding each episode, a tactic Netflix has nearly perfected to this point, are just tantalizing enough to keep bingers planted in their seats. Producers Mark and Jay Duplass, who are also behind Netflix’s stellar series Wild Wild Country, know how to execute in their limited time.
Evil Genius is grimy and uncomfortable. The story oozes of a vileness that only comes from people who treat human life dismissively. The tone is set immediately by the gruesome death of Wells. The truth is murky, fingers are pointed everywhere, there is even a question of Wells’ possible involvement. The entire show can be watched in a single afternoon, although breaks for showers or palate cleansers are recommended.
Another unique aspect of the series is its active narrator. One of the co-directors, Trey Borzilleri, pops in the earlier episodes to give his takes on the story when it was first being reported in the news. Over time, after he decides to start a documentary about the crimes, he is actually able to become close pen-pals with Diehl-Armstrong. Not only is Borzilleri able to personally ask her several questions, he is able to also actively uncovering clues from unsolved sections of the case. This inside perspective keeps the narrative propulsive and fresh as it barrels to its finish.
Evil Genius is a true crime podcast on steroids, becoming increasingly complicated as its characters become tangible and three-dimensional. Who knew that a docuseries would be the best format to tell this story, instead of an Eisenberg-led action-comedy?