Jon Hein knows TV. In the late 1990s, he coined the phrase "Jump the Shark" when he founded the site of the same name. Since then, he's written about television everywhere from The New York Times to TV Guide. In his column for Primetimer, he shares his thoughts on what's new and good on TV and the shows on his radar for the coming week.
How many times have you stumbled across a great newspaper or magazine story and thought, "Wow, this would make a really good TV show!"? You cast it in your mind, you can see it on the screen, it's right there in front of you and it all seems so simple.
But it's not.
For every Saturday Night Fever there are thousands of articles that get optioned but never make it to the big or small screen. Intriguing source material is just the start, but so many elements need to come together. It all starts with the right producer — and preferably one who has the right deal with the right network.
The writers, producers, cast, pulse of the public, relevance… all are key factors in transforming an article into a series worth watching. Production can take forever, so the story needs to stay timely as weeks, months or years pass by. And heaven forbid there's an update in real life that changes everything. As a wise juggler once said, "there's lots of moving parts."
Inventing Anna debuts on Netflix this Friday, and it has the potential to be a perfect storm. So much could have gone wrong, but most of it goes exactly right. Let's break it down:
Source Material - Jessica Pressler's 2018 New York Magazine article "How Anna Delvey Tricked New York's Party People — And Its Banks" details how a young foreign woman scammed Manhattan society out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Everyone loves Robin Hood, even if she might be a bit rotten to the core. The story is there.
Producer - This is the first series created by Shonda Rhimes under her huge Netflix deal. I have not been a frequent visitor to Shondaland since the days of Scandal, but the master producer is putting her cred to the test tackling this big story. Sure, it may be a bit over the top, but you can count on Shonda to take us on an entertaining ride through all nine episodes.
Writer - Jessica Pressler also wrote the article "The Hustlers at Scores" which inspired the 2019 film Hustlers starring Jennifer Lopez. Much of the series focuses on her character's struggle to get this story right as she recovers from a source betrayal that damaged her credibility. The pain of her real-life journalistic struggle translates well and rings true.
Cast - I stumbled across Julia Garner stealing the screen in The Americans and Ozark. Her Missouri accent is one thing, but the one she uses portraying Anna is so distinctive it'll drive you crazy. There's a little Russian and German in the distracting accent, but her attitude carries a powerful performance. Anna Chlumsky plays Vivian Kent, an investigative journalist dealing with plenty of her own issues. The supporting cast is top notch highlighted by Anthony Edwards playing a trusting financial mover and shaker, Anders Holm as an understanding husband, and a trio of veteran magazine writers you'll recognize who reside in "Scriberia" with Vivian.
Pulse of the Public - Everyone loves to see the rich get scammed, but there's much more to this story than Anna’s journey through high society. Social media, office politics, courtroom antics, broken relationships, damaged friendships… it's a Shonda recipe done right.
Relevance - Do yourself a favor and wait until the end of the series to read about where Anna is these days. My wife and I refrained from checking out any related material or headlines until we finished the series. Go spoiler-free for maximum enjoyment.
Figuring out who Anna is no small feat, but Shonda does an excellent job of fleshing out the story and making you care about everyone who is involved. We know the end game, but how the heck did that young "heiress" with that outrageous accent get there?
Enjoy the ride and then read up on the real Anna. She won't let you down.
(Really Good Shows You May Not Have Seen)
This Week's Pick: Patriot (AMAZON)
This dramatic comedy is an odd tale that mesmerizes as it entertains. Intelligence officer John Tavner (Michael Dorman) does whatever it takes to keep us all safe, even if it's in spite of himself.
Battlestar Galactica (PEACOCK)
The Split (AMAZON)
Halt and Catch Fire (AMC+)
The Big Shot Game Show (NETFLIX) – This Brazilian entrepreneurial game show features Shark Tank presentations in a 1 vs 100 studio. Wednesday.
THIS WEEK’S STIHTGT!
(Shows That I Hope To Get To!)
Super Bowl Greatest Commercials: All Time Classics (CBS) – Our network doesn't have the game, so let's show some old ads! Monday at 8pm.
The Girl Before (HBO MAX) – A woman moves into the perfect house as long as she lives by the architect's rules. Thursday.
NFL Honors (ABC) – The NFL capitalizes on its Super week by handing out its annual awards. Thursday at 9pm.
Everything's Gonna Be All White (SHOWTIME) – Three-part documentary on the history of race from the perspective of people of color. Friday at 8pm.
Bel-Air (PEACOCK) – The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reimagined as a drama. Sunday.
THIS WEEK'S PICKS
Jeopardy! National College Championship (ABC)
Monday, February 7th 8:00 PM
What a rollercoaster ride it has been since Alex Trebek passed away. The guest hosts, the failed Mike Richards experiment, and Amy Schneider have made it a memorable season. The plan all along was to have Mayim Bialik host specials, and now she takes center stage in primetime with our universities finest.
Bonus points to Jeopardy! for course correcting after the hosting snafu. Many programs would not. Ken Jennings has proven that he should be the guy. Period. Mayim does a nice job and will charm these contestants in their college sweatshirts as well as the audience.
Super Bowl LVI (NBC)
Sunday, February 13th 6:30 PM ET/3:30 PM PT Kickoff
The Cincinnati Bengals will battle the Los Angeles Rams at their home stadium to determine this year's champion of the National Football League. There's a ton of hype leading up to the game, and I've written before about the best way to spend your Super Sunday.
If you're only interested in the game, commercials and halftime show, turn on NBC at 6:30 PM and enjoy the spectacle of it all. Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth will get you ready for some football.
If you love or hate my picks, I'd love to hear from you.
Get vaccinated. Get a booster. Wear a mask. Stay healthy and safe!
Jon Hein is the creator of "Jump the Shark" and author of three books. Follow him @jonhein on Twitter.