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Bug Out: a captivating true-crime insect heist workplace drama

Bug Out: a captivating true-crime insect heist workplace drama
Philadelphia Insectarium CEO Dr. John Cambridge during an interview for the documentary Bug Out (Image via IMDb TV)

I haven’t been in the mood for real-life murder and mayhem at all recently, so I’ve generally avoided true crime. But when Best Evidence’s Sarah D. Bunting reviewed Bug Out, calling it “charming and informative” and “an unusual story in the genre,” and mentioned that it was also short, I decided to give it a watch.

I flew through the four episodes, all of which are 37 minutes or less, and which wrap up in an intensely satisfying episode that has several stunning scenes that are worth the time spent getting there.

Bug Out is a well-told, engaging story of a so-strange-it’s true series of events at the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion that sometimes gets pinned down by the trappings of true crime, but mostly flutters lightly through the details of the case.

Bugs that have been shipped, as seen in the documentary Bug Out
Bugs that have been shipped, as seen in the documentary Bug Out (Image via IMDb TV)

Bug Out—which is free to watch on IMDb TV (that’s basically just free Amazon Prime, with ads)—focuses on the disappearance of insects from the Insectarium, a small place built and run by people who may or may not know what they’re doing, but are so passionate they charge things to their personal credit cards.

Its staff are also mostly charismatic. We meet everyone from current CEO Dr. John Cambridge, who started as an intern, to original Insectarium founder Steve Kanya, both of whom have some surprising things to say about each other.

And there are a lot of staff members, from operations director Chrissy Rzepnicki, who holds all the permits for the insects, to Wlodek Lapkiewicz, who helped acquire insects.

Alison Mumper and Chris Tomasetto work in animal care; Trisha Nichols runs the education department and does Zoom classes for kids while she shows off insects; employee and insect enthusiast Kelvin Wiley shows us where he breeds insects—after a tarantula crawls out of his mouth. (If insects or images of dead animals are troubling for you, probably skip this one.)

“Insects are probably one of the most misunderstood animals in the world. There’s a lot of errors and misinformation,” Wiley says. Bug Out taught me some things about insects, but mostly showed me how passionate people are.

Bug Out gives us bejeweled roaches pinned to clothes, fighting beetles, people who collect insects to stick pins through them and put them in drawers, snails that cause meningitis, poachers, and $500 roaches. And that’s just the start of the weird, sometimes stunning footage.

Various bugs and their prices, as seen in the documentary Bug Out
Various bugs and their prices, as seen in the documentary Bug Out (Image via IMDb TV)

As true crime, Bug Out incorporates the usual components: interviews with detectives and experts, stock footage and recreations, a murder board. Someone even says “Everyone’s a suspect.”

Director Ben Feldman’s skill is in making all that feel fresh as he focuses on characters while also developing context.

The images move quickly, so it’s not static. B-roll footage illustrates what’s happening, sometimes in comically metaphoric ways, and sometimes in cliche ways.

Its production company is The Cinemart, which also produced the great documentary series LuLaRich. Like that series, Bug Out allows us to hear competing stories, ostensibly to judge for ourselves.

But I think Bug Out has a clear resolution and makes a case for that resolution, though I’m not sure if everyone featured or involved with the documentary would agree.

Its one major misstep is that the series spends too much time pointing fingers at people. For example, we hear that one person has “a laundry list of past criminal charges.”

That’s part of the genre, and also of actual investigations. But it’s not necessary for reality TV shows and documentary series to give the Internet reasons to accuse or harass people.

That’s especially true in this case. The final episode’s description says “investigators find themselves questioning everything they knew,” but that’s actually not accurate.

The resolution ends up being far more interesting than the false turns—and the way the investigation actually unfolded is not exactly mirrored by the series. The late episode-three twist is actually something that happened just days after the heist.

Perhaps, as my friend Sarah D. Bunting suggested, this should have been a feature documentary instead of a series, and then it wouldn’t have needed to fill time with unnecessary dead ends.

Although those dampened my enjoyment, Bug Out is a compelling, compact story that proves once again that humans and their decisions are the most-interesting creatures of all.

Bug Out

A well-told true story that sometimes falls into the traps of true-crime TV. B

What works for me:

  • A small story, well-told
  • The visual storytelling

What could be better:

  • Less time focusing on “suspects” who are clearly not
  • Less repetition of the same footage and images

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

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