In the late 2010s, a young woman going by the name of Anna Delvey effortlessly conned New York’s rich and powerful into believing she was a German heiress, defrauding both people and institutions out of vast sums of money to support her lavish lifestyle. In 2019 she was found guilty and sent to prison, but by then—thanks in large part to a New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler detailing the case and the mysterious woman behind it—Anna was a star.
Netflix’s new nine-episode miniseries Inventing Anna is based on Pressler’s “How Anna Delvey Tricked New York’s Party People,” a viral sensation that drew the attention of prolific showrunner Shonda Rhimes, who helms this fictionalized take as part of her lucrative overall deal with the streamer. And by all accounts, Inventing Anna could be TV’s next big thing—although like Anna herself, perhaps not for all the reasons it wants to be.
Inventing Anna is the perfect Shondaland series in that it is incredibly fun to watch but filled with issues. The first is star Julia Garner’s divisive accent. As Anna, Garner owns this entire series—she needs us to care about her as much as those around her seem to; her Anna needs to be tough, flippant, and vulnerable in turn. And it works, except for what is—in a year of outrageous accents—a truly outrageous accent. Anna Delvey lived in Germany for many years but was actually born in Russia, so some vaguely European accent mixing is part of the story. At the same time, the result is often uncannily similar to Tommy Wiseau.
If you can get past that, though, Inventing Anna is undeniably engrossing. It’s a mystery where we watch Anna Chlumsky’s Vivian Kent (based on Pressler) unravel the story, first by sensing there is more to this story after Anna’s arrest, then convincing her editors to back her on it, and ultimately explaining to Anna herself that she is the one who can tell it the right way. But even when Anna consents to be interviewed, she is an inscrutable figure, one who Vivian refers to her as both a scared girl and Hannibal Lecter. By all accounts, both are true.
It’s also delightful to see frivolously rich people get played by someone who uses their own tricks and mores against them. Anna was able to so easily move to the pinnacle of New York society because she understood, as Vivian later reveals, that by flashing money and posturing as wealthy and unbothered, doors would open. They did. The story lays bare a damning portrait of a shallow and money-obsessed culture of elites (and those who leech off of them), while also making us wish that we were a part of it.
The series is also stocked with Shondaland regulars, from Katie Lowes as Anna’s frienemy Rachel to Jeff Perry’s Lou, one of three older writers who (alongside Anna Deavere Smith and Terry Kinney) are relegated to “Scriberia” at the magazine alongside Vivian, but who end up mentoring and helping her cross the finish line with her piece. There are also winking references to Anna’s friendships with Fyre Festival’s Billy McFarland and “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli, connections which give a glimpse of how many fraudsters were (and are) operating and overlapping in places of power. Evidently it’s not that difficult to con greedy financiers.
All of this is great, but nevertheless Inventing Anna’s hourlong runtimes (a full 60 minutes or more in length) and episode count rarely feel justified. The show begins to lose steam about halfway through, bogged down by repetitive scenes and unnecessary details while also dropping more interesting threads. Inventing Anna should be a taught thriller, but the balance is often off, especially when it shoehorns too many macro issues to Anna’s story, from German prejudices against Russians to the treatment of women in the workplace. It’s not subtle, and rarely works; a character earnestly saying, “I’m not going to turn a foreign woman over to the police, not in Trump’s America!” is laughable when the foreign woman in question is a rich, white European who had very little to fear from anyone. Similarly, a stern admonishment over how there are no real consequences for the men who allowed their companies to be defrauded by Anna is triumphantly juxtaposed with a financial attorney being demoted from Squash Court 1 at his posh New York fitness club to Squash Court 12 (!!) The humanity!!
There is hardly a single redeeming character in Inventing Anna, and certainly no victims to feel sorry for; Anna herself is a rather brilliant and fascinating figure, but not exactly worthy of the teary devotion the show oddly pivots to in its final episodes. And while Vivian is someone who can command respect for her tenacity, the tropey “woman who doesn’t care she’s having a baby because she has a career” is a drag. Still, there are a few humans among the elitist vultures and wolves; Succession’s Arian Moayed shines as Anna’s overworked lawyer, the aforementioned Sciberia tribe is a treat, and Alexis Floyd’s Neff—a film director and hotel worker who becomes part of Anna’s inner circle—is charming when she’s not saddled with ham-fisted dialogue.
And that’s another problem. Inventing Anna doesn’t seem to know what kind of statement it’s making with this series. It’s clear by the final episode that we are meant to see Anna as someone who was too harshly punished for what her male peers do legally every day: have a dream, over-inflate one’s influence and importance, court investors, make promises that may or may not work out, and let it all fly. The perception of Anna as a socialite or heiress got her in with certain circles, but it also limited her; the assumption was that someone that into fashion and social media couldn’t be very savvy. If there’s one thing Inventing Anna is clear on, it’s that Anna is definitely savvy.
But it doesn’t change the fact that, at the end of the day, she ran up a lot of bills she couldn’t pay for (and seemed to have no intention of paying for) by creating a self-fueled Ponzi scheme. True, she took advantage of a system built to forgive the wealthy nearly every transgression, but ultimately she pushed her luck and her fake wire transfers a little too far. She got caught, and whether or not you think that’s fair in context feels rather beside the point. The series starts off with Vivian getting a number of different impressions of Anna from a long list of disparate people, none of which matched with any other descriptions. Ultimately, the show takes a similar tack, wanting viewers to be more interested in the journey than the destination. Who is Anna Delvey? An heiress? A folk hero? A con woman? A girl with a dream? An aspiration? An inspiration? Perhaps Anna Delvey is, and was, whoever you need her to be.
All episodes of Inventing Anna premiere Friday, February 11th on Netflix.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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