Bad Vegan Review: Another Shocking, Twisty True Crime Docuseries From Netflix

Are people really so trusting? I consider myself skeptical by nature, and social anxiety keeps me from genuinely opening up to folks. But if there's one thing I've learned from watching a series of recent Netflix true crime documentaries, it's that some people are very trusting. "The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman," "The Tinder Swindler," and now "Bad Vegan" are three Netflix docs that are eerily similar. All involve a central con artist figure who lures others into his web of deceit by posing as an undercover agent of some kind. This, apparently, is the secret ingredient to getting people to buy into your nonsense: tell them you're secretly a spy, and ultra-naivety will follow.

"Bad Vegan" introduces us to Sarma Melngailis, who was the talk of the culinary world at one moment, and on the run for fraud the next. Melngailis ran the hip New York vegan restaurant Pure Food and Wine, which was a hot spot for celebs and — at least at first — a great place to work. Things took a turn, however, when Melngailis met a man named Shane Fox online. The two fell into a relationship, with Melngailis clearly smitten with Fox. But the love story would lead to ruin, with Melngailis' employees revolting after not being paid, and Fox inducting the vegan chef into a kind of cult that promised all sorts of rewards, including somehow making Melngailis' beloved dog immortal. 

Melngailis sits down to be interviewed here and tries to explain her actions, which culminated in being caught in a motel room with Fox eating some decidedly non-vegan pizza from Dominos. She has regrets, and she seems remorseful. But at the same time, it starts to appear as if Melngailis was almost painfully clueless about certain things. When pressed as to why her employees ended up without a paycheck, she seems utterly perplexed, stating that she just assumed that sort of thing would work itself out on its own. 

Through it all, Melngailis would funnel money in Fox's direction. In the end, the couple stole nearly $2 million from the restaurant (and its staff). In retrospect, the things Fox told Melngailis now seem ludicrous and deranged. And yet, she seemingly bought it all with little or no question. "Bad Vegan" attempts to explain this by highlighting Melngailis' loneliness — a theme that was underscored in the previously mentioned "Puppet Master" and "Tinder Swindler," too. Perhaps that's the answer to my initial question. Perhaps people aren't inherently trusting; we're all just so starved for human connection that we're willing to believe blatant lies if it means we won't be alone in the end. 

Suburban wasteland

Directed by Chris Smith, the filmmaker behind another shocking scam-based documentary, "Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened," "Bad Vegan" follows the now-standard true crime doc format, full of talking-head interviews and big, surprising twists. Indeed, the twists in "Bad Vegan" come so fast and furious that you might find yourself watching this with the type of slack-jawed incredulity of an audience member in a rerun of "The Jerry Springer Show." The twists and turns will keep you hooked, but that doesn't mean "Bad Vegan" is some stunning success. It's actually rather formulaic. But the story is so darn wild it's hard to resist.

Smith does throw in some stylish flourishes. One, involving an associate of Fox, is questionable in the least and will probably inspire more than a few complaints. But I also appreciated the way Smith is able to capture a kind of melancholy beauty lurking beneath the weirdness. There's a late segment where we learn that Melngailis, on the run, befriended Dustin, a manager at a local Chipotle. Melngailis and Dustin would sit in the fast-food parking lot and drink beer, and as this is being recounted, Smith cuts to shots of a Chipotle parking lot at magic hour; the sun setting as violin music swells and the neon Chipotle sign is flipped on. It's strangely beautiful, like a portrait of a suburban wasteland in sharp contrast to the chrome glamor of New York City. We've been transported from the bustle of the Big Apple to a world of fast-food franchises and cracked parking lots and cold, lonely nights. 

Still, like so many recent Netflix true crime docs, "Bad Vegan" starts to overstay its welcome. The series clocks in at four episodes, and you get a sense that Smith and company could've easily whittled this down to a feature documentary instead. But that's not what sells right now. Instead, Netflix and other streamers want you to binge. To keep watching. And you probably will — it's easy to get hooked on the madness inherent to a story like this. And there's a kind of rubbernecking quality as well. We can watch stories like this, shake our heads in disbelief, and say, "Well, that would never happen to me!" But it might. That's what ultimately makes these types of scam-based docs so unsettling. We want to believe we're smarter than we really are. But if loneliness is all it takes to fall into a ruinous con, we all might be trouble. Because aren't we all a little lonely in the end?

"Bad Vegan" will release globally on Netflix on Wednesday, March 16, 2022.