‘Inventing Anna’ Can’t Catch the Scammer at Its Center
The new Netflix miniseries Inventing Anna presents the story of Anna Sorokin (played by Julia Garner), who posed as a European heiress named Anna Delvey and scammed her way through Manhattan high society. Thanks to the reporting of Vivian Kent (Anna Chlumsky), Anna becomes a social-media cause célèbre, praised and condemned in equal measure for how easily she got over on all her rich marks. The response to her profile of Anna doesn’t sit right with Vivian, though, who eventually complains to her husband, Jack (Anders Holm), that people missed the real story. When a confused Jack asks her to clarify what that real story is, Vivian is at a loss, murmuring, “Something about class, social mobility, identity under capitalism… I don’t know.”
That difficulty clarifying the story unfortunately extends to Inventing Anna itself. Despite being created by juicy-TV mastermind Shonda Rhimes — her first created-by credit since bringing us Scandal almost a decade ago(*) — it’s an overly long muddle, never quite sure what it wants to say about its title character, or how to say it.
(*) Since 2012, Rhimes and her production company Shondaland have continued churning out hits like How to Get Away with Murder and Bridgerton, but those have been created and run by her various protégés. This series is fully hers, just like Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy once were.
Part of the problem may be that the show is only somewhat about Anna to begin with. There is a very real Anna Sorokin, who is currently sitting in ICE detention while fighting deportation. Vivian Kent, on the other hand, is a fictionalized stand-in for the journalist Jessica Pressler, whose reporting about Sorokin’s scams for New York Magazine became a sensation. Rhimes has chosen to center things around Vivian, who is trying to complete her story before giving birth to her first child, and hoping it will restore her reputation after being taken in by a fabulist for an earlier article.
Rhimes isn’t interested in exploring the link between Vivian being hustled and attaching herself to a con artist. To Vivian, Anna is simply a means to an end: fixing her career. To Rhimes, Vivian is the human face she is placing at the front of a story where the motivations of the other main character seem utterly impenetrable. The end result, though, proves unsatisfying at either end. Rhimes can’t come up with a clear take on Anna, while the Vivian material never manages to transcend the many clichés at the heart of it. Despite Chlumsky’s best efforts, Vivian is every obsessive professional you’ve ever seen whose spouse just wants them to finish painting the nursery before the baby comes, and without anything specific enough to give her life or make her interesting during the long passages of the season when she’s not interacting directly with Anna.
It’s one of several disappointing stumbles from one of the best and most influential TV writers of this century. Rhimes’ creative reach occasionally exceeds her grasp, but she is usually fantastic at basic storytelling fundamentals. That command of narrative architecture mostly eludes her here.
It’s not just the choice to make Vivian the protagonist, nor the fact that she’s so thinly written. It’s that the whole thing is way too long and shapeless. Most episodes run around 60 minutes or longer (the finale is over 80!), and both the individual episodes and the season as a whole offer more endings than The Return of the King.
Inventing also does a poor job early on of establishing why Anna’s story is fascinating enough that Vivian would risk what’s left of her career to write about her when her editor, Paul (Tim Guinee), wants her writing about MeToo and Wall Street instead. More than anything, the problem is that Inventing Anna never manages to solve the intertwined mysteries of what made Anna tick and what made her able to hoodwink so many people who should have known better.
Garner, a two-time Emmy winner for Ozark, is one of the best actors we have working today. But her performance here is a mess, and not helped by the writing or direction. On Ozark, The Americans, and elsewhere, Garner has specialized in playing young women forced by circumstance to act far beyond their years. Here, she has either been asked or chosen to play Anna as a child playing dress-up. Her accent is a hodgepodge meant to evoke the real Sorokin (as heard in a 20/20 interview last fall), who was born in Russia and lived in Germany as a teenager. But at times it sounds like she could be auditioning for a third Borat film. And even when Garner gets in range of Sorokin’s voice, it still comes across as so weird and artificial that it’s hard to imagine anyone believing any of her lies about an enormous trust fund, wire transfers gone awry, and other schemes she devised to finagle free luxury hotel stays, private-jet trips, and, almost, a $22 million loan to start her own business in Midtown. She’s too much of a tantrum-prone cartoon character for anyone to have taken seriously.
And even if this were exactly how Sorokin sounded and behaved, it doesn’t work in the context of a dramatization that is attempting to understand the thinking of all its characters. “What is it about Anna?” Vivian wonders at one point. Neither she nor Rhimes come up with a satisfactory enough answer. If you’re not dazzled by her hustle, none of it really works(*).
(*) Rhimes brings in ringers Anna Deavere Smith, Jeff Perry, and Terry Kinney to play a trio of magazine old-timers who have been banished to a far corner of the newsroom known as “Scriberia” until they’re ready to retire. The Scriberians all help Vivian do research, but their main function is to act excited by each new development she uncovers, and thus to make Anna’s story seem worth telling. The three are wonderful as always, but also the character-actor equivalent of a sitcom laugh track, loudly blaring even at the jokes that aren’t funny.
During an early interview, Vivian tries to unpack her new subject’s origin story, an attempt which Anna quickly dismisses. “You think that there was some evolution, like in the movies or whatever,” she sneers, “but I was always who I am.” Both Vivian and Rhimes keep trying to dig deeper — including a penultimate episode that finds Anna in a psychiatrist’s care while Vivian travels to Germany in search of Anna’s mysterious parents — without getting past Anna’s insistence that this is simply who she is and what she chose to do. As with the voice, this may be true (Pressler’s original article is more interested in the mechanics of her grift than in psychoanalyzing Sorokin), but it makes for unsatisfying scripted television.
There’s some fun to be had simply from the sheer number of recognizable actors Rhimes throws in. Many are Shondaland alums like Perry, including Katie Lowes and Chris Lowell as Anna’s marks during a trip to Marrakesh gone awry (it’s one of the season’s few genuinely tense passages), Kate Burton as a philanthropist who plays host to Anna early in her reign of terror, and Joshua Malina as a tech mogul whose yacht Anna enjoys a little too much. Others are newcomers to Rhimes’ orbit, like Arian Moayed (Stewy from Succession) as Anna’s exasperated defense attorney Todd Spodek, Anthony Edwards as the powerful lawyer who gets Anna perilously close to that big loan, or Laverne Cox as a celebrity trainer who comes to regret befriending this woman. And after Rhimes spent so long crafting colorful insults within the standards and practices of a broadcast network like ABC, you can sense her relief and joy at being allowed to let her characters curse. (It will surprise no one who watched Veep that Chlumsky is still very good with profanity.)
This is shaping up to be a big winter for shows about scammers, with upcoming series about the founders of Theranos, WeWork, and Uber, among others. (There are so many that some actors like Burton and Edwards pop up in more than one.) Anna’s story, in fact, intersects with several other con artists, like the period when she crashes with FyreFest founder Billy McFarland, and Vivian and the Scriberians make periodic references to the shady ethics and business practices of President Biden’s direct predecessor.
We have become a nation besieged by scams and the people who perpetrate them, these shows argue, and it makes sense why a writer as tapped into the zeitgeist as Rhimes would want to weigh in on this trend. She just doesn’t have enough to say about either the larger trend or this particular bamboozler. For much of the season, Vivian’s editor Paul acts incredulous that she has chosen to stake what is left of her career on Anna, warning her of the consequences if she fails to deliver. Rhimes is too successful for the failure of any one show — even the first she has created herself as part of her enormous Netflix development deal — to so much as dent her reputation, let alone ruin it. But given how long it’s been since she made a show all her own, it’s hard not to empathize with Paul (who is meant to be one of the villains of the piece) and wonder why this gifted scribe decided to give so much of herself over to this particular story.
All nine episodes of Inventing Anna begin streaming on Netflix on Feb. 11. I’ve seen all nine.