The Opposite of Genius: Netflix’s New Docuseries and the Limits of “True Crime”

TV Features Evil Genius
The Opposite of Genius: Netflix’s New Docuseries and the Limits of “True Crime”

Is this the age of sociopathy, or has it always been the age of sociopathy? Are we truly revealing what has always been there, hiding, not talked about, given a blind eye, or is our obsession with criminality and abuse and deception actually generating the deluge of true-crime programs splashing across every network and platform? They say actual mobsters started taking cues and getting ideas from The Godfather. I’ve decided I’m not clear on the chicken-egg thing here anymore.

A man robs a bank. He gets caught by the police, which is unfortunate because he has a bomb locked around his neck, and the bomb squad’s running late. (“It’s going to go off,” he keeps saying, as the cameras roll and the cops stand stock-still with guns trained on him.) There’s something about a scavenger hunt. There’s something about the guy, something weird; he just doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d clip a bomb to his neck and rob a bank. He’s not wrong, though, he is indeed wearing a live explosive necklace. The results aren’t good.

Then it gets weird.

Evil Genius, Netflix’s latest true-crime docuseries, is the mid-aughts story of a bank heist, a pizza delivery gone horribly wrong, a frozen body, a series of unfortunate events that makes A Series of Unfortunate Events look downright felicitous, and at the center, at least one and as many as four batshit-crazy sociopathic liarpantses who are each more ickily arrogant and full of it than the last, though perhaps none quite so much as Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, the Narcissist-in-Chief of the Barnum-wouldn’t-believe-it freakshow that went down in the apt locale of Erie, Penn. It’s well done. Duplass brothers moxie, decent pacing, broad scope, and lots and lots of crazy. Enough crazy to last you for days.

It’s just that it’s got me wondering when there will have been enough crazy.

We are fascinated by sociopathy and its kissin’ cousins: psychopathy, narcissism and borderline personality disorder. If they come packaged with a few co-morbid Axis 1 issues such as bipolar disorder or schizo-affective disorder? Better! Laissez les follies roulez, right? I mean… right?

Eh, I guess.

As I watched Evil Genius unfold, I noticed I was thinking things like, “Yeah, but is it ‘the most diabolical’?” I mean, there are people who have committed more sweeping, more heinous, more grisly crimes. Majorie Diehl-Armstrong was repeatedly reported to be a vivacious, appealing, very intelligent sociopath who could use her incredible charm to manipulate men, and I have to believe that must have been true, but by the time of the events in the series she is a barking blob of rage and unintelligible histrionic nonsense; there’s nothing very compelling about her. She openly admits to killing two men she’d been involved with; a third died under suspicious circumstances. She clearly lies like a rug, but to paraphrase a certain misanthropic pathologist from network TV, everyone lies (that’s why in medical dramas it’s reasonable to have your residents go all Mulder and Scully and break into people’s houses to figure out what drug they’re on). This is not a re-enactment. It is a docuseries. The people in it are real: the perps, the cops, the pizza guy, the hooker, the body in the freezer, the nice gals at the prison, and “criminal mastermind” Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, who in the end “masterminded” an absurd crime that became a murder through carelessness and whose ultimate goal was to steal money to take out on a hit on her own father, who was, in her view, stealing her money (Diehl Senior had for some strange reason disinherited his sociopath daughter).

Everyone in the world has, for example, narcissistic and sociopathic phases, thoughts, or impulses here and there; that’s not the same as a personality disorder. (I’m a Leo, but I have some traits common to Aquarians or Virgos; it’s basically the exact same thing and exactly as relevant.) The difference between a personality disorder and… a personality is essentially degree. If you secretly believe you’re smarter than everyone else and deserve “special” treatment, while at the same time even more secretly terrified that there is nothing special about you at all and that this means you have no value? Hi, welcome to the inner landscape of a narcissist. But plenty of people have those thoughts occasionally, and also have other ones, and experience a range of normal emotions and hold down jobs and have basically stable marriages and basically well-adjusted children and contribute to their 401(k) and donate to the school auction or coach the soccer team. If you are a person who has those thoughts and let them detonate everything and everyone you touch (including literally, with a collar bomb) and insist in increasingly hoarse and incoherent shouts that it’s all someone else’s fault and you are the victim? To quote Harry Dean Stanton in The Avengers: “Well, then, son? Ya got a condition.”

Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong indisputably had a condition. Probably several. But what hit me while I was watching the five episodes of Evil Genius was that there was something… boring going on. Not boring filmmaking—that’s not the issue. I was thinking about… well, I was thinking about Darren Criss, actually. Several of us here at Paste feel FX’s true crime drama The Assassination of Gianni Versace did not get its due in the court of public opinion and are scratching our heads at people who called it “disappointing.” Some of us think it was kind of a masterpiece. I’m one of those people, so I was weighing the shows against each other. Sure, one is a documentary and one a dramatization, with totally different styles and production values. But they’re both well-made and they’re both anatomies of sociopathy. Why did one fascinate me while the other left me faintly impatient?

I have to conclude that at least part of the difference is that I was trained as an actor and a writer, so I get into acting and scripts. Replace those arts with archival footage and interviews and suddenly, a stunning cloud-parting occurs where you realize that in its raw form, sociopathy is Oh My God boring. People on screen can tell you 300 times (and they do) how compelling Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong was. I believe them: That must have been true at some point. But the incoherent ragemonster we’re shown in Evil Genius is not compelling. She’s cruel and repulsive. And not in a diabolical-but-suave Hannibal Lecter kind of way. Saying the word “mastermind” in association with this woman is totally weird. She is a master of no mind, least of all her own. She’s a chaotic, trashy, destructive shit with no conscience and a martyr complex. It’s anything but seductive. She is at best pitiable. Ditto the cabal of absurd criminal “masterminds” who colluded in her Rube Goldberg device scheme to make a slightly simple-seeming pizza delivery guy rob a bank to pay a hit man to murder Dear Old Dad because she was pissy about what he was doing with his life savings.

I probably overuse the word “zeitgeist,” but what can I say, I’m going to do it one more time. Our culture has always had a bit of an obsession with clever criminals. Maybe all cultures do, I’m not sure. I know the one I was raised in and I know that we’ve always glamorized serial killers, mob bosses, psychopaths, and all kinds of people who get away with cruelty and violence and corruption because they are unusually clever and not burdened by a normal conscience. I’m sure any number of sociology (and film studies) grad students have posited reasons for this in dissertations. I’m sure their reasons range from the deeply interior (most people can’t fathom what it would be like to kill someone so we hunger for stories about what creates a person who can actually do it) to the broadly social (we’re all barely restrained bloodthirsty maniacs, some of us just hide it better than others? Our country’s revolt against a colonial power where social class was inherited and heinously immutable birthed an even more insidious culture where “class mobility” was bound to entitle people to indulge in their most psychotically Machiavellian impulses to “get ahead” of and control everyone else? Both? Other?) Whatever the answer or answers, it does seem clear that film and television create a feedback loop. Life imitates art. Art imitates life. Each informs the other, distorts and amplifies, negates and dilutes, invents and reflects. The appetite for psychopathy might be born of a desire to understand it, or to validate the kernel of it that we know exists in each of us, or to reassure us that at least we’re not as bad as that person, or any number of things.

Is our current insatiable market for sociopath-TV normalizing sociopathy? Glamorizing it? Making more of it in the world? Putting it in, oh, I dunno, the Oval Office? I’m pretty sure we have indeed managed to confuse a reality TV show with a presidential election, and what’s worse, instead of saying “Yowzers, let’s not do that again” we’re saying things like “Oprah 2020!” So… it’s looking like maybe we have not decoupled from the idea that being able to command large audiences is not the fundament of statesmanship and that perhaps we are over-invested in the concept of fame even if what a person is famous for is being totally profligate or an up-by-the-bootstraps marketing genius.

I think the reality is this: The concept of the “evil genius” is compelling to humans for a variety of reasons, but it’s a concept. In reality, there is not a lot of genius in evil. Criminals are, by and large, freaking idiots, even if some of them have high IQs (and perhaps Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong did; I can’t prove otherwise). Perhaps she was a charismatic, compelling predator, like a cuttlefish stunning prawns with mesmerizing color and light displays rippling over their skins before they strike. I can’t say she wasn’t, though I can say that by the time any of the footage in Evil Genius was captured she doesn’t seem likely to have stunned anyone with anything but her screwed up signal-to-noise ratio.

The original meaning of the Latin word “genius” is “guiding spirit.” It specifically has a moral and generative connotation, like a combination of a creative muse and a guardian angel. It’s the opposite of evil. Even in its more modern connotation of “unusually high intellectual capacity” it tends to imply the creative, the innovative, and the good. Adolf Hitler was not a “genius,” although he was said to have a relatively high IQ. And Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong was a puny little monster who killed a kindly and gullible pizza delivery guy for relatively low-level personal gain, which is the essence of evil right down to how petty and random and pathetic it was. And the opposite of genius.

Evil Genius is now streaming on Netflix.

Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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