When superproducer Shonda Rhimes and her company Shondaland left ABC, the broadcast network that's still home to her historically successful medical drama Grey's Anatomy, for Netflix in 2017, the deal's potential made TV fans as excited as a con artist with a stolen credit card. Shondaland, freed from the creative and budgetary constraints of broadcast TV, would be able to make financially extravagant shows with TV-MA content that still felt like the fun, frothy shows people loved on ABC, like Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder. The hype around the Shondaland-Netflix deal was that Shonda Rhimes had the freedom to do whatever she wanted, and if she had a vision for something, it would probably connect with millions of people.
The thing about hype and potential, though, is that they so often disappoint. Hollywood history is littered with the dusty remnants of shows and movies that were great in theory but didn't work out in the execution. But Shondaland's Netflix deal so far has delivered on exactly the potential that was promised. The first series to come out of the partnership was Bridgerton, a lavish costume drama peppered with pulse-quickening sex scenes that quickly became Netflix's most popular English-language show. And now, there's the Rhimes-created limited series Inventing Anna, which takes the splashy, prestigious based-on-a-true-crime miniseries format and turns it into a fast-paced dramedy that's more fun to watch than any other recent show of its ilk.
Inventing Anna dramatizes the story of Anna Delvey, also known as Anna Sorokin, a middle-class, Russian-born schemer who conned members of New York City's art world and financial elite into thinking she was a German heiress with tens of millions of dollars in her trust fund. The limited series is based on a viral 2018 New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler that tracks Delvey's deleterious rise and fall, as her ambitions of being a powerful, socially connected businesswoman conflict with everyone around her when they realize not only is she not who she says she is, she's in fact defrauding them to support her lifestyle of designer clothes and five-star hotels as she tries to secure funding for her business idea, a Soho House-like private club. She started at Fashion Week and ended at Rikers Island. She's also something of a folk hero for the way she proved how easy it is to fleece the greedy rich, and for her stylish courtroom outfits. She's a #girlbandit.
The article is the source of much of the narrative material, as well as the spine of Inventing Anna's plot. The show follows investigative journalist Vivian Kent (Anna Chlumsky) as she works on a story that tries to answer the question, "Who is Anna Delvey?" It's a simple question with a complicated answer, as Vivian interviews Anna (Julia Garner) in jail, tracks down people Anna scammed, and combs through pages and pages of documents provided to her by Anna's lawyer Josh (Arian Moayed, who you will recognize as Stewy from Succession). Vivian is trying to figure out how this ordinary young woman managed to con so many seemingly savvy, sophisticated people, and the answer, she learns, is money. She seemed like she had a lot of it, so people didn't ask questions until it was too late.
Inventing Anna is the first show Shonda Rhimes has created since Scandal, and the first of a wave of limited series about famous scammers (Hulu's The Dropout, about Theranos' Elizabeth Holmes, and Apple TV+'s WeCrashed, about WeWork's Adam and Rebekah Neumann, are on deck). But more than anything else, it's a vehicle for the acting talents of Julia Garner, a two-time Supporting Actress Emmy winner getting the most prominent starring role of her career to date.
Those familiar with Garner's work as the resourceful young criminal Ruth Langmore on Ozark will be amazed by her range when watching Inventing Anna. Here, she's clad in high-end clothing and talking in the most incredible accent you've ever heard. I thought long and hard to try to come up with a more elegant word to describe it than "crazy," but I couldn't. Her accent is crazy. It's a combination of Russian and German, with a dash of American attitude. It's loud and attention-grabbing and hilarious. It's the kind of accent that will make you say, "That must be what Anna Delvey actually sounds like, right? Because that's too weird to make up." The real Anna Delvey — who Garner met with in prison while preparing for the role — really does talk like that, though Garner exaggerates it a little bit. Garner is totally committed to the part, but also has a lot fun playing Anna with grandiose verve.
The show moves at a rapid pace. Episodes are an hour long, but they feel longer — not because they drag, but because so much happens in them, which will come as welcome surprise to viewers who have been trained to expect leadenly paced dramas from Netflix. Usually this type of show devotes the entire first episode to set-up — on Hulu's Pam & Tommy you don't even meet Pamela Anderson until the second episode, to give one recent example — but Inventing Anna hits the ground running. It starts on the day Anna Delvey is arraigned, and Vivian is well into her reporting by the end of it. The show doesn't make us wait to see Anna, the show's whole reason for being, and we get her early and often. This is because Shonda Rhimes makes television. She understands that an episode of a limited series is still a TV episode, and it needs to be entertaining on its own. Inventing Anna is not a nine-hour movie, it's a nine-episode TV show where every episode stands on its own but also makes up part of a whole (each episode follows a different person's relationship with Anna, framed by interviews with Vivian). It starts with a crisp, pilot-style premiere that hooks you in, and episodes end on moments that keep you coming back to find out what happens next. The dialogue is polished and clearly enunciated. The lighting and colors are bright. It feels like a broadcast investigative procedural you watch for fun, not a gritty cable drama you watch because it's important. It's more Law & Order than The Night Of.
And in a way, it's more Younger than Law & Order, because it's a comedy. Anna's unflinching rudeness leads to solid gold lines, like when she's chewing out Vivian for using being pregnant as an excuse for being late to a scheduled visit. "You're not special," she says. "People have babies every day. They squat in fields." Meanwhile, Veep vet Chlumsky animates every muscle in her expressive face to react to the lunacy she's hearing. And it gets funnier as it goes on, because Rhimes and her writing staff are tickled by Anna's sheer audacity as her scams get bolder. She once stole a f---ing plane.
Inventing Anna is exactly what you would want a Shonda Rhimes take on a Netflix limited series to be. Rhimes uses Netflix's vast resources for international travel, a wardrobe that would make Emily in Paris jealous, and a supporting cast stacked with ringers like Anders Holm as Vivian's husband, Anthony Edwards as an attorney who falls for Anna's deception, and Laverne Cox as a personal trainer who accompanies Anna on an ill-fated trip to Morocco. She's doing what she did on ABC in a more sophisticated way — but not so sophisticated that it stops being fun.
The show takes a lot of dramatic license with the truth as told by Jessica Pressler's article — starting with Vivian Kent herself, who is based on Pressler but is not Pressler — in order to make the story fit the TV format (each episode begins with the disclaimer that it's based on a true story, except the parts that are made up). It's not a serious show about how Anna Delvey represents the state of the American Dream in the 21st Century or the difficulties of being taken seriously as a woman in male-dominated industries. Sometimes it pretends it wants to be, but it's a half-hearted gesture. And it admits it doesn't have the answers about what Anna Delvey's story means for the culture at large. After the article is published, Vivian says she didn't nail down exactly what the story really was. In the end, Inventing Anna is just a tall tale about a larger-than-life character that really happened. The modesty of its thematic and narrative ambitions keep Inventing Anna from being a great show. It could have been truly great if it had decided to really be about something, but instead it's content to just be fun. It knows what it is and succeeds at what it sets out to do.
It isn't trying to get Anna Sorokin freed from ICE custody — she's currently being held in a county jail in New York while she waits for a decision about whether she'll be deported — but it should bring attention to her unjust plight. She served her time, made financial restitution, and shouldn't be incarcerated anymore.
Premieres: Feb. 11 on Netflix (all nine episodes)
Who's in it: Julia Garner, Anna Chlumsky, Katie Lowes, Laverne Cox
Who's behind it: Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey's Anatomy
For fans of: Grifters, hustlers, scammers
How many episodes we watched: 9