Stories of the rich and entitled are cashing in on TV. “Succession” and “The White Lotus” skewer the power of wealth with relentless satire. “The Crown,” “The Great,” and “The Gilded Age” lounge in their lavish period backdrops. “And Just Like That…,” “Gossip Girl,” and “Billions” spend big bucks on soap (of varying amounts and quality). There are more, because there are always more and always have been, but the success seen by many of these programs has led to steady growth of late, which has drawn an added degree of scrutiny from critics and audiences alike. With prosperity’s disparity causing so many problems in America, should we really be concerned when those with all the advantages hit a snag?
At its best, “Inventing Anna” pushes this question forward by re-contextualizing it. Anna Delvey (real surname: Sorokin) may or may not be rich. Anna Delvey (played by “Ozark” Emmy winner Julia Garner) may or may not be a German heiress with a $65 million trust fund. Determining her value is often tied to determining her legitimacy, which is just one of the twisted false equivalencies Shonda Rhimes aims to untangle. Inspired by Jessica Pressler’s reporting, particularly her 2018 New York magazine article on the convicted con artist, the nine-episode Netflix limited series examines who gets access to life-changing financial opportunities, how the sexes are treated differently when it comes to their monetary ambitions and, when that ambition goes too far, the imbalance in their punishment. Wading through the bloated episodes — especially the first few — can cloud the twisting drama’s commentary, and the jumbled perspectives, confounding “truths,” and sheer repetition of scenes and beliefs don’t help either. But there’s damning critiques within this messy retelling, and they’re (thankfully) not all about Anna.
Anna, however, is more than happy to make herself the center of attention — starting with her accent. During one of those opening sequences that acts as a trailer for the show you’ve already started (please, someone make streaming services stop demanding these), Anna greets her audience via a voiceover that never returns: “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 goes on to tout her hard work and triumphs — climbing the New York social ladder, starting her own foundation, taking a selfie where Khloé Kardashian once took a selfie — as she dissuades any assumptions that she’s just another glorified “party girl.” Anna assures us she’s the real deal, but even what we hear sans context reads as suspicious.
“Delvey isn’t an alias,” she says — only the last word sounds like “el-E-us.” “Party girl” becomes “pot-tea girl.” I can’t even describe the way she pronounces “Marriott.” Garner’s accent — a mix of German (where Anna was raised), Russian (where she was born), Gaelic (for reasons beyond logic), and, I swear, sparks of the American South — may be the defining element of “Inventing Anna.” Like the hubbub surrounding “House of Gucci’s” performative array of Italian intonations, there will be some viewers who can’t wrap their minds around the wild words coming out of Anna’s mouth. But where the voice’s inconsistencies may rile the impatient, it also adds to two of the show’s strengths: the mystery surrounding Anna’s intentions, and the entertainment in her mad-confidant near-conquest.
If you’re onboard after hearing Anna, then perhaps you can survive her tale’s long and bumpy road. Following Anna’s one-and-done voice of God intro, the series pivots to Manhattan magazine reporter Vivian Kent (Anna Chlumsky, as a fictionalized Pressler proxy) discovering Anna’s case and making time to meet with her. But even then, “Inventing Anna” doesn’t adhere to the simple perspective of a journalist slowly uncovering her story. Some scenes are clearly told from Vivian’s perspective, and others are recollected from her sources’ memories. But others seem to be from Anna, even when it’s clear Delvey didn’t share this tidbit. The effect is mainly confusion, but Rhimes and her writing team charge forward fast enough that it’s easier to give in than sort it all out — unless you’re looking for real answers.
By its own eager admission, “Inventing Anna” plays it fast and loose with the truth. Each episode includes the onscreen message, “This whole story is completely true, except for the parts that are totally made up.” (The series loves flashing imposed images across its lavish costumes, luxury destinations, and general HGTV visual aesthetic. Instagram photos, tweets, headlines — much of the time, it doesn’t actually matter what’s said, just that the frame imitates your phone screen, distracting you with shiny lights.) Those not wanting to read the original article or do their own fact-checking when the series ends will probably grow frustrated, but again, Rhimes’ crime drama isn’t dedicated to explaining its titular star. If anything, it’s a little too eager to admit huge parts of her will remain divisive or undisclosed. But what it lacks in illuminating details about Anna, it makes up for in revealing looks at her “friends.”
While maintaining its freewheeling approach to narrative composition, episodes are sketched around one person crucial to Anna. There’s Val (James Cusati Moyer), a fashion designer who befriends Anna early on and later testifies to her elite taste. “Anna Delvey was Queen Bitch, but the way she did it made her seem like Queen Bitch for a reason,” he tells Vivian. Once he’s been used up and spit out, Chase (Saamer Usmani) takes his place by Anna’s side, courting her, paying her way on fancy trips, and leaning on her to help raise capital for his start-up.
Nora Roberts (Kate Burton), a Manhattan gatekeeper, and a few others pop in to add context to Anna’s activities, but “Inventing Anna” really finds its stride in Episode 4, “A Wolf in Chic Clothing” — where Anna convinces Alan Reed (Anthony Edwards) to back her with the banks, despite certain red flags — and Episode 5, “Check Out Time,” by interrogating Anna’s relationship with an enterprising hotel clerk turned confidant, Neff Davis (Alexis Floyd). Both entries are focused to the point of being blunt, but their angles are specific and thoughtful. Had Anna been part of the boys’ club, or come from a familiar family with money, would she have faced the same fate? And, amidst all the lies, cons, and posturing, is it possible to forge a genuine connection that inspires people in a positive way?
Over nine egregiously long episodes, “Inventing Anna” loses its strongest threads again and again. The confounding structure can make staying engaged a chore, while the frenetic pacing is so focused on movement, it never stops to ask if it’s talking down to the audience. Vivian’s personal arc only really pops when she catches aspects of Anna in herself (and don’t get me started on professional quibbles, though I expect
Manhattan New York magazine’s sister site, Vulture, to list all the ways Vivian’s job doesn’t reflect reality). Odds are “Inventing Anna” won’t have the lasting impact of the article that inspired it — like too many streaming series, it trades in efficiency and force for length and reduced churn. Still, there’s a lot to chew on, including a handful of delicacies yet to be so earnestly unearthed in all those other stories of the rich and famous.
“Inventing Anna” premieres Friday, February 11 on Netflix. All nine episodes will be available at launch.