Inventing Anna is an outdated manifesto on the girlboss
Shonda Rhimes’s new show is bad eye candy that doesn’t know what it wants to say about all of its lofty themes.
The first thing you and everyone will notice is, undoubtedly, the accent. The opening of Netflix’s new miniseries Inventing Anna features a voiceover from the show’s central conundrum and protagonist Anna Delvey (real name Anna Sorokin), who offers an overly self-indulgent introduction with her very particular manner of speaking. “This whole story, the one you’re about to sit on your fat ass and watch like a big lump of nothing, is about me,” she says before the screen pans to a tweet from the reporter who is chasing Delvey’s story throughout the show. “Ew, not her. Me! You know me. Everyone knows me. I’m an icon. A legend.”
It is an intentionally jarring, over-the-top intro to this perplexing figure and her unique accent —which, in its untraceable and partially manufactured mixture of Russian and German, is an immediate take-generator and also a symbol of the mythos of Delvey, a real-life woman who scammed her way up through New York City’s most elite circles. It’s also meant perhaps to be a clever trap: the opening may naturally engender assumptions about Delvey as a “dumb socialite” — to use a phrase she keeps trying to combat throughout the show — an emblem of a self-obsessed generation, or worst of all, an idiot, conceited girl.
Inventing Anna intends to flip the script, exposing these innately sexist assumptions and attempting to show the true nature of Delvey, or at the very least a more complicated figure who was trying to make her way through a skewed, patriarchal world. But what we end up with instead is nine overlong (several dip well past the hour-mark) episodes that create a shoddy portrait of a grifter that both loses the magnetism of the real-life figure, and also clumsily holds her up as an example of the show’s utterly confused, outdated liberal politics.
Inventing Anna is based on a New York magazine story by reporter Jessica Pressler, who tracks Delvey: a 25-year-old woman of mysterious origins who funded a lavish socialite life on wads of cash and obscure, confident lies as a supposed German heiress, before she was eventually caught stiffing massive hotel bills and attempting to swindle multiple banks out of nearly tens of millions of dollars. Pressler’s piece was an enthralling tale of, as Vivian Kent (Anna Chlumsky), the show’s avatar for Pressler, says, “the swindle that is the American Dream in the 21st century.”
The show tracks the arc of the same story, focusing each episode on a different character Delvey tricked, while adding a couple of episodes for the initial story’s aftermath. But it fails first and foremost in the necessary task of capturing how exactly Delvey did it — or, at the very least, the energy of her salacious scam life. Pressler’s story ponders this, and the kicker centers on Delvey’s understanding and exploitation of the blinding allure of wealth, how we all fall under the spell of money if it’s given to you confidently and in hundred-dollar bills.
Inventing Anna is far in over its head in trying to capture these lofty ideas about American culture, but even as a pulpy, eye-candy story about the power of shiny riches, the series fails. It is, above all, a Shonda Rhimes show, the patron saint of glorified soap operas. As a result, while we’re meant to taste the glamor that helped Delvey trick everyone, we instead get what looks and feels like a factory-produced show in which its sheen of wealth only reveals cheap, assembly-line manufacturing: the production design and costuming is bad, the cinematography utterly bland, the performances (despite Julia Garner doing her best with poor writing) are over-directed, and the script is muddled at best and cringe-inducing at worst. (Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, the movie that was also based on a Pressler story and mired in similar themes of scams, wealth, and America’s gilded surface, is a perfect example of how to properly execute the vision and tone this story requires.)
Worst of all, Delvey, the fascinating character that made Pressler’s story such a sensation, loses all of her compelling aura here — Anna was, in fact, brilliant, but the show tries and fails at capturing this truth (there are hints at her having an eidetic memory, for instance, that seems oddly uncapitalized upon for the most part). Midway through the first episode, Vivian shows her husband the prototypical investigator wall, featuring photos of Delvey in different looks, indicating the mystery of the many Annas that have existed. “Who is she?” Kent asks incredulously. “How many Annas is she?” Yet the photos themselves, “all taken within the last five years,” portray nothing mysterious or distinct about her various looks or identity; the tease falls flat, and the show also never convincingly elaborates upon this idea of a split-personality Anna.
Ironically, while the show wants to push up against the flat, sexist assumptions about Delvey as a shallow party girl, it unpersuasively focuses on how she treats people poorly and lies her way through channels of money. The result is a similarly one-dimensional portrait of what should have been a complex character. This is part of the most egregious issue at the heart of Inventing Anna. It can’t decide whether or not it sees Delvey as a misunderstood, unfairly maligned person of ambition (by the end it mostly errs on the side of advocating this view) — not because the show is a nuanced portrait of a complex, morally ambiguous character, but because it can’t reconcile its own dissonance between the misguided hope it has to cast Delvey as a noble girlboss hero, and the fact that her character and her actions were undisputedly horrid.
Much of the show’s serious themes operate under two related ideas: that Delvey is a victimized girlboss in a man’s world, and that her rise, while ethically murky, is somehow a satisfying encapsulation of class resentment and a middle finger to the wealthy male elite establishment. In the fourth episode, Anna, while in jail, tells Vivian, “Every day, men do far worse things than anything I’ve allegedly done. And what happens to them? Nothing. No consequences, no fallouts, and definitely no jail time.” The camera cuts to a direct close-up, before she says, “Men fail upwards all the time.”
In the very next scene, Vivian adopts this view in talking to her husband, while in the background then-President Trump gives a State of the Union address. She expresses disdain about Alan, a partner at an investment firm that got promoted after Anna duped him. “There’s zero consequences for these men,” Vivian says as the scene ends after cutting, heavy-handedly, back to Trump.
The running thesis of the show is channeled through ham-fisted moments that attempt to reinforce this confused, contradictory political message. In other instances, the show actually implies that Delvey, who innately understands America as grifter country and is adamant about seeing herself as a self-made schemer, is in fact cut from the same cloth as Trump (while the show ends by largely agreeing with Delvey’s displeasure at the world’s sexist perception of her as a “dumb socialite,” it also ends its first episode showing her cooperate with Vivian’s story because of the promise to make her “famous”). And it’s not a reflection of moral grey area, or the conflicting ideas of what America constitutes as legitimate or legal — the show believes wholeheartedly in its paradoxical ideas each time they’re offered. “You don’t deserve this kind of a sentence,” Vivian tells Anna at the end of the show after her trial has ended. “The guys who broke the Wall Street banks didn’t get this kind of a sentence.” It’s entirely true that worse men repeatedly get away with far less punishment, if any, but it’s bizarre to consequently champion Delvey in some ways as a white feminist martyr.
A key sign of the show’s shallow politics is also how its 2015-era “topple the patriarchy” ethos has nothing to say of the white womanhood that is inherent to Delvey’s story: Delvey was brilliant in weaponizing the inherent sexism of those around her by throwing suits off with the confidence and know-how they wouldn’t expect from a young woman, but it is undeniable and glaringly unaddressed that she could only fake her way through these spaces specifically as a white woman.
After Vivian’s story finally gets published, she expresses some uneasiness with how the story is being received, believing that readers missed the real story. “What was the real story?” her husband asks. She struggles to articulate an answer: “Something about class, social mobility, identity under capitalism. I don’t know.” Unfortunately, neither does Inventing Anna.