True Crime Docuseries Review: Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives.

 Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives is a recently released docuseries on Netflix that tells the story of Sarma Melngailis and her downward spiral that birthed from the manipulative efforts of her husband.  Directed by four time Emmy nominated Chris Smith, this is a truly fascinating real life story about a rising star in the restaurant scene who ends up being wanted by the authorities.

In Smith's Netflix documentary, Fyre, about the horrible music festival run by conman Billy McFarland, one of the most intreguing elements was the brutal honesty that Smith was able to get from his interviewees.  These people had been conned and they knew they probably looked like idiots, but Smith was able to get them to be honest and vulnerable.  This is replicated in Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives.  The openness of people assists the story in a fascinating way.

Melngailis is the primary interviewed subject in the series, and we learn of her journey to run an incredibly successful raw vegan restaurant in New York.  She meets her future husband through the game Words With Friends, and the entire evolution of the relationship doesn't feel natural.  Once married, her husband, Shane Fox, started manipulating her into wiring him more and more money.  He described himself to her as an ex-Navy SEAL who was fighting the battle over evil throughout the world.  He also claimed he could make her dog immortal and would help Sarma transform into a powerful queen of a mystical spiritual family.

Now is when we would laugh.  To hear the claim about the dog and so many other far out statements by Fox, we can honestly jump to the conclusion that Sarma is an idiot that deserved what she got.  However, her brutal sincerity in the interviews keeps us connected to her, and there is sympathy.  She was conned, and she is telling the world how she fell for it all.  

However, Smith doesn't necessarily let her off the hook for everything.  He highlights the fact that people who worked at her restaurant (and who immediately had the feeling that Fox couldn't be trusted) found out and informed Sarma that Fox was actually Anthony Strangis, a man convicted of impersonating a police officer.  Sarma apparently didn't take that as the massive warning sign that it was.

As well, as Strangis extracts more and more money from Sarma through claiming this was some sort of spiritual test that would return money to her tenfold, it is hard to remove Sarma from all fault.  At first, it would have been most likely been her personal funds that she was funnelling to Strangis, but she begins stealing from the restaurant.  I do understand that she was being brainwashed, but she knew where she was taking the money from and how that would affect employees and investors.

A large number of people were interviewed for this series, and they provide a perspective that rounds out the situation and provides a lot of context.  Besides Sarma, the next most important interview is with Allen Salkin, a journalist with Vanity Fair.  He had been investigating this story, and he speaks with no judgements at all against Sarma.  It really feels like an unbiased view, which is hard to get in true crime docuseries or documentaries.

From a narrative perspective, this is a very fascinating story.  We can feel a lot of sympathy for someone who was taken by a con artist, but we also aren't seeing Sarma Melngailis portrayed as an angel.  Smith does not let her get away with acting as though she didn't do anything wrong.  I honestly believe she thinks she was innocent in some matters, but when asked why she lied to a very supportive investor about a fictitious person who Strangis was pretending to be, she responded that she didn't see the harm in that.  Yes, that's right.  She knew she was lying to an investor about a made up person in a scheme to get money, and she plays innocent.

She's not a perfect person.  She could be described as gullible and naive, but Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives keeps us remembering that Sarma is a human.  Most people picked up on the fact that there was something about Strangis that couldn't be trusted, and yet there is still a level of sympathy for her.  Sadly, because of her own actions, that level of sympathy remains a little low.  After all, she admittedly married Strangis purely for her own financial benefit, so in a way she was conning him before he conned her, something that Salkin is happy to point out.

Rating - 3.5 out of 4 stars