- Creator: Shonda Rhimes
- Starring: Julia Garner, Anna Chlumsky, Arian Moayed, Anders Holm, Laverne Cox, Alexis Floyd, Anthony Edwards
You’ve seen Inventing Anna before. In some form or another, this story has been told many, many times already. Of course, the specifics like the people involved and the setting are unique, but everything about Shonda Rhimes’ newest Netflix series suffers from being too familiar without having anything significant or new to say. Even the show’s tagline, which punctuates every episode’s opening – “What you’re about to see is completely true. Except for the made up parts” – feels like it’s been done before. Perhaps the best analogy to Inventing Anna is Scorsese’s magnum opus of American excess The Wolf of Wall Street, but without the “can you believe this is really happening?” bugnuts details.
The limited series is meant to be a damning portrait of American excess, a look at how elite members of modern society project their power to everyone else but are secretly just as foolish as you or me. But because this genre has become so pervasive of late, in film and television, the show finds itself spinning its wheels throughout much of its bloated runtime (almost every one of Inventing Anna’s 9 episodes is over an hour long, with some reaching the unforgivable 75 minute mark).
The Anna in question is Anna Delvey (Julia Garner), a German/Russian trust fund heiress who accepts nothing less than the finest clothes, shoes, restaurants, and art, and who successfully wormed her way into New York’s high society through sheer gumption alone. But it’s quickly revealed that Anna essentially had nothing and was able to scam those around her into luxurious vacations, couture fashion, and investment in her own foundation, a kind of elite social club for the rich and famous. Hot on her tail is Vivian Kent (Anna Chlumsky), a plucky, pregnant journalist who believes the story has more legs than her superiors. Rhimes really wants you to know that both Anna and Vivian are two sides of the same girl-boss coin as they rebel against the big, mean men in power that hold them back – a point that’s hammered home with the show’s soundtrack, heavily featuring Megan Thee Stallion and similar artists that I’m too old to identify. This is far from the show’s biggest problem, and it gives Inventing Anna a more personal voice, but the music just drills down the show’s monotony.
Also at odds with itself within the show is our rooting interest; are we supposed to want to see Vivian uncover Anna’s lies and deceptions, or do we want Anna to successfully dupe New York’s cultural elite, even when she purports to be one of them? Garner is an engaging performer, and she does her best here – including Anna’s bizarre accent – but somehow Anna is one of the least interesting parts of Inventing Anna. Because Anna was naturally cagey about her authentic self, it presents the show with a fundamental problem: how can you sympathize with someone when you don’t know anything about them? And how intrepid of a journalist can Vivian be if she doesn’t realize that she should check Anna’s Instagram until she’s well into her investigation nearly halfway through the first episode?
There’s an understated theme of imposter syndrome throughout the show, where those who don’t belong somewhere do their best to fit in. One of the most interesting subplots involves Todd (Arian Moayed), Anna’s defense attorney, a low-level public defender with a staff of one going against New York’s high-powered prosecutor. To add insult to injury, Todd is married to a respected attorney at a big-time firm that comes from a wealthy family. The best parts of the show are when it delves into Todd’s psyche and his common connection to Anna.
When it’s not flashing back to Anna’s globe-trotting shenanigans, Inventing Anna is a journalistic investigation, as Vivian tries to make sense of who Anna really is. When she’s not bustling around town, interviewing Anna’s friends and associates, she’s trekking to Rikers Island to meet with Anna face-to-face, as Anna constantly needles her and trashes her clothing choices. When she’s not doing either of those, she’s fretting about her own future. With a baby on the way, Vivian knows her own clock is ticking to make a name for herself in her male-dominated industry.
The show also goes out of its way to show that Anna’s world was full of hucksters who would eventually get caught as well. Anna spends a stint crashing with Billy McFarland, best known as the creator of Fyre Festival, and Todd comments that his office is rented from WeWork, another Silicon Valley story of over-inflated value. Inventing Anna is based on an article from Jessica Pressler, whose work also inspired the 2019 film Hustlers. That film found an engaging way to pit the little guys against a ruthless system – a sense of purpose that Inventing Anna is sorely missing. Save yourself a load of time, support print journalism, and read the article instead.
Inventing Anna premieres on Netflix on February 11 with 9 episodes available on release.