At one point in Netflix’s Inventing Anna, journalist Vivian Kent (Anna Chlumsky) fervently argues with her magazine editor over the importance of her story exposing con artist Anna Delvey, a.k.a. Anna Sorokin (Julia Garner). “It’s about why scam culture is here to stay,” Vivian says about the article she’s spent months reporting and researching. The line inadvertently acts as a reference to the current TV landscape as well.
Inventing Anna, Super Pumped, Joe Vs. Carole, The Dropout, and WeCrashed are all set to premiere weeks apart, each tackling a fictionalized depiction of a real-life scheme of some sort. Of course, TV isn’t new to scam stories—Netflix and Hulu previously released dueling documentaries on the infamous Fyre Festival, and HBO produced The Inventor: Out For Blood, which centered on Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos scandal, as well as The Wizard Of Lies about Bernie Madoff’s pyramid scheming. More recently, documentaries like Prime Video’s LuLaRich and Netflix’s The Tinder Swindler dominated the online discourse.
There’s clearly an ongoing fascination with the genre, so it’s no surprise various networks are splurging to bring these narratives alive as heightened dramas. Created by Shonda Rhimes, Inventing Anna is based on Jessica Pressler’s 2018 The Cut article documenting Sorokin’s exploits. Vivian is a stand-in for Pressler (who also wrote the article that inspired the 2019 film Hustlers). The show juggles aspects of Anna’s life in nine overlong episodes—at least three installments cross the 70-minute mark, with the finale capping out at a dawdling 82 minutes. We see things through Vivian’s perspective as she interviews Anna and obsessively investigates her schemes, background, and relationships.
In her early 20s, Sorokin, now 31, tricked well-placed bankers, expensive hotels, a private equity firm, and members of the New York elite into believing she was a German heiress with a $60 million trust fund. In addition, she conned several people into bankrolling lavish trips and outfits for her as she allegedly worked to build an exclusive VIP art club in an expensive city building.
Inventing Anna is a double-edged sword. It casts an empathetic eye on Anna as a human being without excusing her pathological behavior, lies, and thieving—at least to an extent. The show prods at how Anna got as far as she did quite well and in extensive, glossy detail. It paints Anna’s cunning, superficial personality in cheeky ways, from her frequent disses of Vivian’s outfits to demanding a classy courtroom wardrobe during her trial.
The show (much like the article) ultimately points the finger at Anna’s charm and street smarts, but also the faulty legal and financial systems (and their loopholes) that helped her along the way. Inventing Anna navigates the complexities of how women in Anna’s position are treated. In episode four, “A Wolf In Chic Clothing,” she tells Vivian that men who have committed far worse crimes are roaming free, facing “no consequences, no fallout, no jail time.” Yes, there are also Donald Trump clips and other references strewn throughout the series.
It’s revealed that finance lawyer Alan Reed (Anthony Edwards), who unwittingly helped Anna defraud his company, got promoted with a pay bump. The repercussion he faced was being downgraded from court 1 to court 12 for squash games at his club. But these interesting inconsistencies ultimately get lost in the shuffle of tackling too many threads in drawn-out episodes.
The series’ tense second half is devoted to Anna’s deteriorating friendship with Rachel DeLoache Williams (Katie Lowes). She worked at Vanity Fair, and ended up footing the $62,000 bill of their lavish Morocco trip on her work card. Their tensions escalated after Williams’ frequent attempts to get her money back to avoid being fired and going broke. Eventually, she filed a complaint against Anna, and testified in court about her PTSD from the incident.
Lowes is exceptional in Inventing Anna. She delivers all of Rachel Williams’ mixed emotions without missing a beat, from being relatably vulnerable and anxious about the traumatic event, to a terrific courtroom scene when realization dawns on how she benefitted from it. Williams first wrote a Vanity Fair article, and later a book about her experiences called My Friend Anna. (HBO purchased the rights to the real Williams’ novel.) The show doesn’t gloss over how Anna’s fictional trust fund attracted friends and partners: For the most part, everyone was just taking advantage of her, like she was of them, without realizing she was a liar.
But both The Cut article and the show forego examining a crucial angle. Anna was able to evade scrutiny for so long partly because she’s a white woman who posed as a wealthy European heiress. She stayed for months at fancy hotels without payment or even a credit card on file, manipulated Alan Reed into working for her for free for months, and talked her way into getting loans, among other misdeeds. The same privilege would likely not extend to women of color making similar claims.
Inventing Anna’s ensemble is impeccable, including lots of familiar Shondaland faces like Lowes, Jeff Perry, Kate Burton, Joshua Malina, and Marika Domińczyk. Alexis Floyd and Laverne Cox’s heartfelt performances elevate the scanty arcs they’re given as Anna’s friends Neff Davis and Kacy Dukes, who get caught up in her whirlwind. But Garner is the show’s scene-stealing anchor. The actor, who gave her best Ozark performance in season four, switches from a Midwestern accent to a mix of German, Russian, and American that’s eerily similar to Sorokin’s. Garner captures Anna’s dizzying journey in a smirk-heavy, toned-down manner that unravels satisfyingly by the end.
Chlumsky’s performance here is an odd mix of frustrating and captivating. Unfortunately, the talented actor isn’t aided by the writing at all. The uneven script is the series’ biggest grievance, especially considering it’s based on an eloquent article. Vivian repeatedly utters some version of “How the hell did she do this?”, spending every waking minute spewing facts about Anna to anyone who will listen. This quickly gets tedious, and confines Chlumsky to a limited, shoddy narrative. Despite its more evocative performances, Inventing Anna demands patience that doesn’t pay off, squandering its promising potential along the way.