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‘Inventing Anna’ Buries the Lede—and Its Actual Subject

Shonda Rhimes’s first created Netflix series is something of a bait-and-switch. Anna Delvey may be the title character, but she isn’t the protagonist.

Netflix/Ringer illustration

If hype is any measure, it’s rare for a story and its storyteller to be as well-matched as Inventing Anna’s. The limited series isn’t just the first show created by Shonda Rhimes under the producer’s blockbuster Netflix deal. (The smash hit Bridgerton was a Shondaland production, but it was created by Chris Van Dusen.) It’s also adapting one of the juiciest magazine stories of the last decade—the saga of how a penniless Russian woman named Anna Sorokin turned herself into the ersatz heiress Anna Delvey. Rounding out the trifecta of buzz is Julia Garner, the breakout star of Ozark now playing another brazen grifter. As the title character in The Assistant, Garner occupied the bottom rung of Manhattan’s rigid social hierarchy. There’s something undeniably enticing about watching her latest character claw her way to the top, even if she ultimately crashes down.

Yet Inventing Anna is something of a bait-and-switch. Anna Delvey may be the title character, but she isn’t the protagonist. A con woman who nearly bluffed her way into starting a kind of Soho House for the even-more-elite, Delvey is something of an enigma—certainly a challenge to make the emotional center of a nine-episode TV show. Instead of trying, Inventing Anna pivots the spotlight to Vivian Kent (Anna Chlumsky), the journalist who latches onto Anna’s story and races to report it before she gives birth.

As the show’s postscript makes explicit, Kent is inspired by Jessica Pressler, the reporter who published the still-definitive account of Delvey’s exploits in New York magazine. (Inventing Anna’s Vivian works at a barely fictionalized version called Manhattan, complete with a red logo and a culture vertical called “Scavenger.”) Inventing Anna is not the first high-profile adaptation of Pressler’s work, nor even the first to feature a version of her as a character. The 2019 movie Hustlers is based on another New York piece about strippers who drugged and robbed their clientele. One can only hope her chronicle of bourgeois Brooklyn’s preschool wars is up next.

In Hustlers, however, the Pressler figure acts more like a framing device than a character in her own right. As played by Julia Stiles, she’s mostly used to draw out the protagonists’ stories in flashback and reveal where they are in the present day. Chlumsky’s Vivian, on the other hand, anchors the A-plot. (Pressler’s producer credit on Inventing Anna reflects her enhanced role.) Vivian’s quest to get sources on record and redeem her reputation following a journalistic scandal drives the story; Anna’s exploits leading up to her arrest in 2017 are essentially used as an accent, relayed in fragments as Vivian chases down her subject’s victims one by one. Every episode focuses on a different, Rashomon-like perspective, from Anna’s ex-boyfriend to the hotel concierge who became her close friend. But the effect is watered down, because all these points of view are filtered through Vivian’s own. We never fully experience the seduction of a scam artist, nor the slow disillusionment of realizing Anna isn’t what she seems. We only witness Anna’s crimes at a remove—and as grist for Vivian’s developing story.

Vivian’s parallels to Pressler go beyond just her workplace. Her backstory, involving a retracted profile that’s exiled her to a part of the bullpen known as “Scriberia,” is borrowed directly from Pressler’s own biography. In 2014, Pressler published a story on a Stuyvesant High School student who claimed to have made tens of millions of dollars trading stocks, only for the student to reveal he invented the entire scheme, complete with forged bank statements. Pressler had previously accepted a job with Bloomberg News’ investigative unit; after New York admitted the magazine, including Pressler, had been “duped,” the new gig didn’t pan out, with Pressler remaining at New York.

Inventing Anna scrambles the chronology from there. In real life, Pressler’s next blockbuster was “The Hustlers at Scores,” the inspiration for Hustlers published in December 2015. (That piece fed directly into the Delvey exposé; Pressler was tipped off by a New York Post court photographer who also shot one of the strippers.) Inventing Anna makes the Delvey case a more immediate shot at redemption. The pregnancy required less fudging. Pressler really was expecting when she first encountered Delvey, a hard deadline that pushed her to report the story in just a few months and Vivian to do the same in a handful of episodes.

But the greatest tribute to Pressler isn’t how closely Inventing Anna echoes the beats of her lived experience. It’s how much of the show depends on reenactments of the most memorable moments from Pressler’s original piece. Of course Rhimes and her writers would pick from Pressler’s buffet of vivid details: a dinner party with Martin Shkreli where he played leaked tracks from Lil Wayne’s The Carter V; an intervention organized by a personal trainer to the stars; Delvey’s arrest outside the posh Passages rehab center in Malibu. They’d be foolish not to. But by Inventing Anna’s end, there’s little that ends up standing out unique to the series itself. The show knows Delvey is fascinating, which is why its heroine mirrors our collective obsession. It just doesn’t seem to have a take on her beyond dramatizing anecdotes already in print.

Throughout Inventing Anna, Vivian occasionally spells out what she thinks the Delvey saga means. “My piece is about the swindle that is the American dream in the 21st century!” she rants. “It’s about why scam culture is here to stay!” The problem is that we get only faint traces of those themes from the storytelling itself. When Vivian states them outright, she only calls attention to how little they’re cultivated by watching Anna in action.

As much fun as Garner has with Delvey’s over-the-top accent, her Anna remains a cipher. Like Villanelle of Killing Eve, she’s a Russian emigrant who transformed herself into a glamorous chameleon. Unlike Villanelle, her show declines to openly embrace Anna as a sociopath—a chaos agent who loves to watch the world cash her fraudulent checks. Instead, she’s stranded in an uncanny valley. We’re unconvincingly told Anna deserves our sympathy by figures like Neff (Alexis Floyd), the concierge who continues to stand by her friend even after she’s indicted. But we’re never given a cohesive theory of who Anna is or why she does what she does, precisely the information that makes a character feel real enough for us to sympathize with. The real Anna may remain a mystery; with such an unreliable narrator, it’s little wonder Pressler’s story was more about the whats and hows of her grift than the why. In fictionalizing her, though, Inventing Anna declines the chance to fill in the gap.

That leaves us with Vivian, the latest in a long line of pop culture police, writers, and amateur sleuths to get a little too obsessed with her subject. (She’s joined in her fixation by Anna’s defense lawyer Todd, played by Succession’s Arian Moayed.) It’s a familiar arc, down to Inventing Anna’s strained conclusion that Vivian is using Anna for her benefit—an insight ripped straight from Janet Malcolm’s iconic text The Journalist and the Murderer. Except here, the punishment seems to match the crime. Anna exploited everyone around her for clout and shelter and luxury trips to Morocco. Why shouldn’t Vivian exploit Anna for her story? And why shouldn’t Inventing Anna be fine with that, given how much it owes Vivian’s inspiration? Inventing Anna might as well be called The Journalist and the Scammer, even if neither half of that equation ends up benefiting from the equal billing.