How-to shows are some of the most popular on television. But does it cross a line when the activity is crime?
Anthony Morris

10 Mar 2020 - 10:57 AM  UPDATED 10 Mar 2020 - 10:57 AM

Everybody loves learning how to do new things. Half of YouTube is instructional videos; shows about cooking and home renovations dominate the airwaves. People want to learn – but are there some things they shouldn’t be taught? Put another way, does How to Rob a Bank really teach you how to rob a bank?

As the show’s tagline puts it, “Every day 14 banks are robbed in the US by people who see it as a shortcut to making all of their problems go away”. For some of the people shown, the problems they want to go away are as serious as heroin addiction or gambling debts; for others it’s just not being able to pay for lunch.

Some of these robbers are ex-military or professional criminals. Others are regular people who just need the cash. One episode focuses on a bank manager who starts robbing banks from the inside, after a reunion with his criminal father; another features a Christian rock singer who finds the path to becoming a professional poker player is a lot more expensive than he realised. They’re from all walks of life, robbing banks in all different ways; if nothing else, this series makes bank robbery look like one of the few truly democratic occupations out there.

So how educational is it? And how educational is too educational? If you’re the kind of person who watches a series of stories that all end with the criminals going to jail (at best) and thinks “bet I could do better”, then yes, this is definitely going to be an inspiration. Of course, if that’s really how you think, then literally anything up to and including accidentally hearing a passing car radio playing 'Bank Robber' by the Cosmic Psychos is going to set you off. Enjoy prison!

That said, How to Rob a Bank doesn’t even try to deny that robbing a bank is one of the more tempting crimes out there. One successful heist can change your life in a handful of minutes, providing you with enough cash to start again – though across the eight episodes it’s clear that most professional bank robbers aren’t making that much from each robbery, and the really big scores are the ones that cause the most trouble.

Episode one sees David Ghantt and his associates stealing $US 17 million from a holding facility in an inside job, only to find the cash is so heavy they leave millions in their getaway van; in episode two a Miami crime crew gets away with US$ 7.4 million only to turn on each other. Later episodes reveal that the big money scores usually involve someone on the inside or serious planning. If you’re thinking of just walking into a bank and retiring from the proceeds of your first serious crime, think again. (Again, enjoy prison!)

Clearly that’s not stopping people from looking to make an illegal withdrawal. The main temptation is that bank robbery seems (relatively) easy and (relatively) victimless: as countless movies have taught us, the robbers are just there to steal the bank’s money, and the bank’s insured so they’ll get it back. You don’t even need a weapon: just pass a note to a teller saying you have a gun so please hand over all the cash and you’re done. 

But with that ease comes a low return. If you’re not making a big one-off score on How to Rob a Bank – the kind of robbery that attracts serious police attention – then you’re stuck robbing banks for small change again and again and again to try and build up a nest egg. The criminals here end up going on robbing sprees, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months, and every bank they rob makes it easier for the police to catch them. 

There’s plenty of reasons to want to rob a bank. For some people, it’s the thrill of getting away with a crime. For others, it’s the temptation of the cash stacked in front of them. And some just can’t see any other way to get the money they need. But the big lesson from the stories in How to Rob a Bank isn’t the specifics of how to actually rob a bank; either you’re already in a position to do that or you’ve seen enough movies to know roughly how it works. 

The lesson here is that unless you’re willing to put in a lot of serious work, then robbing a bank just isn’t worth your time. And if you’re going to put serious work into something, isn’t it easier to just find a legal way to get paid?  

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How to Rob A Bank looks at how ordinary Americans, including teachers, lawyers, college students, and soldiers, are committing bank robberies with 14 attacks happening each day. Season 1 (8 episodes) is available to stream in full at SBS On Demand, and episodes screen late-night Thursdays on SBS VICELAND (check local guides).


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