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Inventing Anna Falls Short

Shondaland's new Netflix limited series fails to make the most of Anna Delvey's stranger-than-fiction story.
  • Julia Garner adopts a bizarre accent to play "socialite scammer" Anna Delvey in Netflix's Shonda Rhimes-created series, Inventing Anna. (Photo: Netflix)
    Julia Garner adopts a bizarre accent to play "socialite scammer" Anna Delvey in Netflix's Shonda Rhimes-created series, Inventing Anna. (Photo: Netflix)

    Each of Inventing Anna's nine episodes begins with the same prologue: “This whole story is completely true,” it reads, “Except for all the parts that are totally made up.” The text appears differently in each episode — in one, it slowly materializes on closing elevator doors; in another, it flashes on the wall above someone’s bed — but it’s impossible to understand it as anything but a message from creator Shonda Rhimes, who acquired the rights to Jessica Pressler’s bombshell article about “socialite scammer” Anna Delvey in June 2018, just days after the New York Magazine story became a viral sensation. In the years since, a series of projects about Delvey, born Anna Sorokin, have been announced, but Rhimes’ was long considered the official account of her con, as Netflix paid Delvey $320,000 for the rights to adapt her life story, and star Julia Garner even visited her in prison to prepare for the role.

    Given Delvey’s involvement in the series, it’s natural to expect that Inventing Anna would shed new light on this gripping tale, but Rhimes’ conspicuous prologue repeatedly indicates otherwise. Viewers hoping to learn more about the Russian-born twentysomething, the details of her scheme, and any feelings of remorse she may (or may not) have will be disappointed, as the new series adds little to Anna Delvey’s story. Instead, Inventing Anna expands its scope to include Pressler’s personal drama, a decision that does nothing but weigh down Rhimes’ latest attempt at guilty pleasure TV.

    Though Inventing Anna begins with a voiceover from Anna (Garner), the drama uses journalist Vivian Kent’s (Anna Chlumsky) efforts to report the story as its narrative frame. In the premiere, Vivian, a reporter for Manhattan Magazine pregnant with her first child, ignores her bosses’ objections and begins covering the court proceedings against Anna, who is being arraigned on grand larceny and misdemeanor theft of services charges. Fresh off a previous journalistic embarrassment and a demotion to “Scriberia,” Vivian’s relationship with her bosses is fraught, but she sees Anna’s story as an opportunity to redeem herself. When Vivian first visits Anna at Rikers Island, where she’s being held without bail, her subject is reluctant to agree to an interview, but that changes when Vivian meets Anna’s demands and starts treating her like a VIP — the only thing she’s ever wanted to be.

    Beginning with the second episode, Inventing Anna flips between Vivian’s reporting storyline (a period that spans from November 2017 to Anna’s sentencing in May 2019) and dramatizations of Anna’s time in New York, as told to Vivian by her friends, casual acquaintances, and the victims of her con. These flashbacks, which are presented more or less chronologically, hew closely to Pressler’s original reporting in “How Anna Delvey Tricked New York’s Party People”: we see Anna, who claims to be a German heiress with a $60 million trust, develop an idea for an exclusive social club called the Anna Delvey Foundation, or ADF, and begin promoting it with her boyfriend (played by Saamer Usmani), a futurist and TED-Talks speaker. Anna’s idea impresses New York City’s biggest players, but when she applies for a loan for ADF, the banks start asking questions about her enigmatic international assets, and the loan never materializes. As her business plan stalls out, Anna’s personal life becomes strained as well, and things deteriorate rapidly after a fateful trip to Morocco, during which Anna’s friend Rachel Williams (Katie Lowes) is forced to put $62,000 on her company AmEx card after Anna’s is declined (the real Rachel wrote about her experience in a Vanity Fair article that came out one month before Pressler’s story).

    While these flashbacks add little to our understanding of Anna’s scheme, the drama depicts her rise and fall with Rhimes’ signature flair. Garner’s impression of Anna’s European-accented lilt is distracting to say the least, but her commitment to the bit is admirable, and when she’s not talking, her performance conveys both the impressive and tragic nature of this years-long grift. The flashbacks also boast a stacked cast of Shonda-verse stars, including Lowes, Kate Burton, and Jeff Perry, plus newcomers like Laverne Cox, who plays trainer Kacy Duke, and Alexis Floyd as Neff, Anna’s concierge-turned-friend. Much like Rhimes’ previous hits, Inventing Anna is deliciously trashy in these moments, and there’s an undeniable thrill that comes with watching Anna play “credit card roulette” with Martin Shkreli or refuse to pay for a jet she chartered to Warren Buffett’s shareholder meeting in Omaha.

    But while fun storylines like these and a sizable costume budget hint at the true guilty pleasure Inventing Anna could have been, they're not enough to make up for its biggest flaws. Of the show’s nine episodes, only three are under an hour (at 58 and 59 minutes long), while others run anywhere from 64 to 82 minutes, nearly the length of a feature film. Many of the flashback scenes are spoiled by ridiculous tonal swings and jarring PowerPoint-style transitions, while repeated timeline shifts make for a confusing watch. Viewers who want to get the most out of Inventing Anna might consider keeping Wikipedia handy and watching at 1.25x speed, although some of the earlier episodes will likely still feel like a slog even at a faster pace.

    Then there’s the Vivian storyline, which is the true albatross around Inventing Anna’s neck. Vivian’s efforts to report the story provide a useful narrative structure, as both she and the viewer go deeper into Anna’s con with every interview, but the drama spends entirely too long in Vivian’s world, to the point where she’s often presented as its subject (Delvey suggested as much in a recent piece for Insider). Unlike Anna, whose true self remains a mystery throughout, Vivian is given a backstory about a previous journalistic error, but rather than explain it outright — and Pressler found herself at the center of a similar controversy in 2014, so it’s not exactly a secret — the writers dance around this conflict, doling out little hints across early episodes, puzzle-box style.

    Vivian’s pregnancy and her obsession with the case also become major plot points, as we see her work on her story until the second her water breaks, and develop a close (and probably journalistically unethical) friendship with Anna’s defense attorney, played by Arian Moayed. While there’s plenty to explore in the idea that Vivian was the one who truly “invented Anna,” the show largely ignores these more sticky questions to present Vivian as the dogged reporter overcoming the odds to bring the truth to light, a trope that proves far less interesting than any of the real-life details of Anna’s story.

    Inventing Anna’s focus on Vivian contributes to the overall sense that the show misunderstands why the world finds Anna Delvey so fascinating. The people who dressed up as the Soho Grifter for Halloween and bought T-shirts reading “Fake German Heiress” don’t care about the journalist who made her a household name — they want to know more about Delvey, and how she managed to trick New York City’s elite into taking her seriously. In its attempt to answer these questions, Inventing Anna goes searching in the wrong direction, and viewers are left with a bloated, forgettable series that fails to make the most of the stranger-than-fiction story at its center. Shonda Rhimes warned us, so it’s not exactly false advertising, but it still feels a little like we’ve been conned.

    Inventing Anna premieres Friday, February 11 on Netflix.

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    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Inventing Anna, Netflix, Anna Chlumsky, Arian Moayed, Julia Garner, Katie Lowes, Laverne Cox, Shonda Rhimes