Netflix’s Inventing Anna Writes a Check It Can’t Cash

Shonda Rhimes’s new show has a juicy, based-on-a-true-story premise but doesn’t seem to understand our fascination with grifters.

Julia Garner playing con artist Anna Delvey on a plane in 'Inventing Anna'
Nicole Rivelli / Netflix

Even in prison, Anna Delvey won’t settle for anything less than the best. When a journalist drops by Rikers Island to see her—her first guest in some time who’s not a lawyer—Anna pushes her to make a proper media visit. Such an ask will take weeks to process, but a media visit would get them inside a private room, she explains. Anna calls it “VIP,” and as she puts it, “VIP is always better.”

The way Anna (played by Julia Garner) describes it, the private room almost sounds like an upscale lounge. But this being Rikers and not the Ritz Carlton, the space turns out to be merely a dingy concrete-walled break room with bad lighting, a hot-water dispenser, and a few bags of tea.

Based on the New York magazine story by Jessica Pressler about a 20-something con artist who convinced the New York elite that she was a German heiress, Netflix’s Inventing Anna, which starts streaming today, resembles that so-called VIP room at Rikers. The series, the über-producer Shonda Rhimes’s first for Netflix as a creator, initially looked to be a fizzy but nuanced profile of a fraud. Given the way Rhimes’s previous dramas, such as Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, managed to balance outrageous story beats with insightful observations about gender and power, Inventing Anna seemed poised to do the same. As it turns out, however, the show misunderstands what made the grifter at its center a viral sensation; for all the promise in its ripped-from-the-headlines premise, Inventing Anna is a shabby letdown.

To begin with, the series insists on keeping Anna at a remove, instead following the perspective of Vivian Kent (Anna Chlumsky), the fictional representation of Pressler herself. Vivian’s interest in Anna is obsessive, bordering on unethical, and the journalist is often depicted as harried and clumsy, so hung up on finding out how Anna came to swindle Manhattan’s wealthy that she prioritizes Anna’s court dates over her own doctor appointments to monitor her pregnancy. Pressler’s involvement in the show as a producer is somewhat baffling; did she know that her stand-in would be presented as an overzealous journalist, one whose every conversation seems to start with her saying something akin to “Can you believe Anna did this?!”

Like the real Pressler, Vivian’s reputation took a hit after she wrote a story that turned out to be a hoax, so she sees Anna as the literal source of her redemption. But framing every episode around Vivian’s work saps the drama out of Anna’s greatest grifts. Take the time that Anna scammed a private-jet company, for instance: Instead of going straight into showing how Anna conned her way into flying on a $35,000 plane without paying a dime, the series spends a whole scene depicting Vivian and her colleagues reacting, slack-jawed, to the fact that Anna did so, discussing the matter excitedly among themselves. By the time the incident is shown in a flashback, the tension over how Anna could pull off the feat is entirely gone.

As a result, Garner’s Anna is rendered largely inert. With her actions told in retrospect, through the accounts of Vivian’s sources, she is reduced from a character to a collection of anecdotes. On the page, these eyebrow-raising stories—Anna threw dinners attended by Macaulay Culkin and Martin Shkreli! She got a rich friend to spend thousands on her for a trip to the Venice Biennale!—made for a punchy magazine piece. On-screen, drawn out over the course of nine hour-long episodes, her crimes come off as tiresome. And though Garner is a capable actor who nails the real-life Anna’s Muppet-with-a-mouth-full-of-marbles accent, her performance can’t stop Anna’s exploits from seeming boring. Scamming the wealthy means, in Inventing Anna, a whole lot of exchanging business cards and schmoozing for selfies. Such scenes do not make for thrilling material.

Then again, maybe the real Anna Delvey’s misdeeds weren’t as ready-made for televised adaptation as perhaps Rhimes and her team thought. Delvey’s ultimate goal was to lease a building so she could start a private club that would include a “dynamic visual-arts center,” five-star accommodations, and fine-dining options. Her marks were wealthy, yes, but not famous. Often, she simply pretended that she had forgotten to pay or lied about how long it would take for funds to be transferred from her bank, so people kept waiting—and waiting is not exactly interesting to see on-screen. Even one of Anna’s more theatrical scams, in which she gets a friend to max out her credit cards to pay for an extended stay at a luxury resort in Morocco, boils down to a con that only involves running a few pieces of plastic through a machine. This could explain why every episode begins with a cheeky disclaimer proclaiming that the story it’s telling is “completely true, except for the parts that are totally made up,” giving the show license to embellish details here and there. An episode in which Anna spends some time with Billy McFarland—a.k.a. the guy behind the disastrous Fyre Festival—treats him like a special guest star, and the pair has an on-the-nose conversation about success that plays like a wink at the audience.

A show about a con artist shouldn’t be this bland. Stories about people swindling their way into a seemingly inaccessible realm are inherently dramatic and can be immensely enjoyable to watch. They fulfill a particular fantasy for the viewer, proving that, through a combination of sheer luck and incredible gutsiness, it’s possible to make it by simply faking it. But Inventing Anna seems reluctant to do what other Hollywood dramatizations of real-life cons, such as Catch Me If You Can and American Hustle, do: It struggles to raise the narrative stakes. Though it augments the magazine story with more characters and montages of makeovers and shopping sprees, it fails to envision cons that would be more cinematic, to shuffle the story so there’s gratification in the payoffs, and, most important, to probe the psychology of its star grifter.

Why do con artists begin their cons, and why can’t they stop even after they’ve pulled one off? In Hustlers, another Hollywood adaptation of a Pressler piece, the women who swindled the wealthy men visiting their strip club did so when their livelihoods were threatened by the Great Recession. They continued because they felt empowered by using their femininity for their own gain, and because their activities formed a found-family bond—motivations and relationships with which audiences could resonate. Anna Delvey, per Inventing Anna, did what she did because she could, and her backstory reveals nothing except the fact that she was always materialistic and she always had an inflated sense of herself as a businessperson.

That conclusion may be true, but it’s an unsatisfying and underbaked one that allows the show to dodge the mystery it was trying to solve. The show continually gestures at Anna being representative of something—American avarice, maybe? Millennial hustle?—but it never bothers to dig into that idea. In treating Anna with a shrug, Inventing Anna never quite justifies its own existence. Instead, it strings its viewers along with the possibility of reaching some profound revelation, but in the end, it’s a knockoff posing as couture.