Cheating the audience: what went wrong with Inventing Anna?


There’s a recurring impulse throughout Inventing Anna, the nine-part Netflix limited series on the so-called “Soho Grifter”, to apply the scam logic of Anna Delvey – a broke twentysomething Russian émigré who posed as a wealthy German heiress in mid-2010s New York – to society at large. Capitalism is a scam. So is meritocracy. Rich people can skate by on the assumption of their wealth; men fake it till they make it all the time. There’s a point to this, however blunt and flattening it’s made in connection to Anna Delvey. Part of our evergreen fascination with scams – an amorphous zeitgeist that includes everything from Fyre festival to the Tinder Swindler to upcoming series on Elizabeth Holmes and WeWork’s implosion – derives from recognition. They’re extreme versions of dynamics with which we’re all familiar: exploitation, manipulation of trust, seductive performance, inflation of the self.

Based-on-a-true-story television, like a scam, requires sustained disbelief; if done well, it’s a potent cocktail of truth and dramatic embellishment. There’s an implicit contract with the audience that some details will be juiced up, some facts changed. Inventing Anna, the first Netflix series created by Shonda Rhimes under her blockbuster deal with Netflix (2020 hit Bridgerton, produced by her company Shondaland, was created by Rhimes protege Chris Van Dusen), invokes this connection at the beginning of each episode with a cheeky reminder: “This whole story is completely true, except for all the parts that are totally made up.”

This nod at Anna Delvey’s genuinely stupefying nerve – to fund her self-named arts club (the “new Soho House”), based entirely on lies and zero assets, she applied for a $40m loan (!!) – ends up being more revealing of the show itself. Its curious blurring of fact and fiction will lead many viewers to Google the real thing, and left me scratching my head. In a confounding choice, Inventing Anna buries its sharpest hook – the scammer and those who accommodated, even benefited from, her charades through New York – into the somewhat fictionalized story of how a journalist, Vivian Kent (Anna Chlumsky), pieces together her grift in an effort to rescue her career from a devastating journalistic mistake. It’s an attempted meditation on fact and fiction whose blurring of the two obscures the heady, perpetually compelling mix in the art of the scam – why someone lies, why people believe them, the heaps of denial and cognitive dissonance needed to sustain both. Like Nine Perfect Strangers, last year’s buzzy Hulu show with similarly flashy parts (Nicole Kidman in a wig, sinister wellness culture), Inventing Anna is at once overlong and underwhelming – a disappointing, intriguing misfire.

You’d be hard pressed to find a show with more reliably interesting attention hooks than Inventing Anna. There’s the creator: Rhimes, the master of the modern soap opera, adapting a true story for the first time. There’s Julia Garner, the breakout star of Netflix’s Ozark, transforming into Anna – perpetual scowl, bracingly harsh accent from nowhere. And there’s the source material: the 2018 New York magazine article by Jessica Pressler, which quickly became one of the most-read of the year and a surefire bet in the by-then churning article-to-screen pipeline. (Pressler, whose work also inspired the film Hustlers, is a producer on the series.)

Inventing Anna acknowledges the popularity of this story from the jump: the first shot is of magazines rolling off the press, the now canonical (to media people) lead image recreated with Garner. Anna gets the first word: “This whole story, the one you are about to sit on your fat ass and watch like a big lump of nothing, is about me,” she says. But it’s Vivian Kent, loosely based on Pressler, who tells the story. Each of the nine episodes focuses on someone tricked by Anna – her ex-boyfriend, the lawyer she retains for her club, her trainer, ex-best friend Rachel Deloache Williams, whom she stuck with a $62,000 bill in Morocco – as refracted through Vivian’s understanding of Anna and her personal motivations to nail the story.

The framing of the Anna Delvey story, which in the show is peppered with identifying details, characterizations and real names, through a fictional-ish journalist is questionable, distracting. When most of the other characters have real counterparts, and the details of the story are well known, why invent a journalist character? And why make the journalist bad at her job and borderline unethical? (Vivian, who in the show appears to view Anna as somewhat of a feminist antihero, lies to her boss, ignores assignments, and most egregiously, offers to help the defense team.)

It feels problematic to adjust the journalist character with some elements of Pressler’s story – Pressler was also pregnant when reporting the piece, and was also the author of a retracted story, though the mistake didn’t hang over her career as it does Vivian’s – but then keep Williams’s characteristics consistent. Inventing Anna’s Williams, who wrote a first-person account (and later book) about getting stuck with the Morocco bill, has the same name, university, job, hair and words in Vanity Fair as the real Williams, whom the show paints as a self-victimizing, opportunistic hanger-on who profited off Anna’s story. (Maybe that’s true! But didn’t everyone?)

While depictions of those in her orbit invite questions of accuracy and motivation, Anna herself is kept at an icy remove throughout. Garner’s Anna is deliberately abrasive, a cipher brimming with delusional ambition and uncomfortably guileless hustle. The show, via Vivian’s frustrated bafflement, gestures often at the sheer boldness of Delvey’s schemes – she didn’t have to apply for a $40m loan! She didn’t have to make the new Soho House! But it fails to capture the labyrinth of emotions undergirding the scam – why people cling to disproven trust, or how deeply Anna believed her own lies, what writer Brandon Taylor calls the “heady, thrilling feeling of getting away with something or the glazed pleasure of believing your own hype”.

Instead, there’s a middling simulacrum of wealthy New York, heavy-handed writing, lots of wide-eyed gesticulation by Vivian, and the bait-and-switch of a journalism plot over Anna’s manipulations. Inventing Anna is simultaneously too interested in an inscrutable, wildly mercurial scammer – at the expense of her friends, associates, even her lawyer’s confounding, fascinating loyalty to her – and not interested enough in her appeal beyond money. The dramatization of facts and stories already in print makes for a good idea – it’s wild material – but this blend distracts more than informs, a skim of the familiar with little payoff.

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Olivia Wilson
By Olivia Wilson


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