February 13, 2022 In Netflix, turns

Netflix turns Anna Delvey into a beautiful antihero. She doesn’t deserve it.

Netflix’s latest fictionalization of a true crime story sounds, at first blush, like the stereotypical morality tale of a con artist caught red-handed. Anna Sorokin reinvented herself, transforming from the child of working-class Russian immigrants into Anna Delvey, a wealthy German heiress.

Producer Shonda Rhimes has invented a series that is highly aware of the public frenzy caused by Delvey and how her mysteriousness makes her irresistible. As part of a spate of dramas centered on fraudsters and hucksters, “Inventing Anna” takes someone whose scamming wouldn’t be all that unusual and turns her into a beautiful, impenetrable antihero.

Producer Shonda Rhimes has invented a series that is highly aware of the public frenzy caused by Delvey.

A convicted criminal, Delvey started her transformation in her early 20s in Paris. Upon arrival in New York City in 2013, she discovered far more fertile ground to live the frictionless existence of the super-rich. Over the next few years, she flitted from wealthy art patrons to bankers, convincing institutions to extend her lines of credit based on assumptions and flattery and flashes of cash. But the high-wire act could only last so long, and by the end of 2017, she was arrested. (In 2019, she was convicted on charges including second-degree grand larceny, theft of services and one count of first-degree attempted grand larceny.)

However, her story did not really hit the mainstream until the year after her arrest, when New York magazine published a profile with the sensational title “Maybe She Had So Much Money She Just Lost Track of It,” written by Jessica Pressler. (Pressler is the same writer whose 2015 article was the basis for Jennifer Lopez’s “Hustlers.”) The story, with the accompanying image of Delvey, bed-headed and eyelinered, presented its subject as gorgeous, young, full of life and utterly devoid of a conscience. Audiences ate it up.

Delvey cashed in, selling the rights to her story to Netflix for six figures. (That payment was frozen by New York state, and much of the money was reclaimed by the banks she conned.) Out of prison since 2021, Delvey seems mostly remorseless and all too eager to capitalize on the endless news generated by the Netflix series.

Pressler’s magazine feature is Rhimes’ jumping-off point; the narrative begins from the point of view of Vivian (Anna Chlumsky, as a thinly fictionalized version of Pressler), after she first hears about Anna Delvey (played Julia Garner). Each subsequent episode is told from a different point of view, as Vivian digs into anyone who crossed Delvey’s path, from friends to stylists and hotel concierges. But this is no “Succession”-style satire of the bad behaviors of the rich. Despite her fussy behaviors or her icy attitude, her generous tipping and faux confidante act create an aura of power that fools almost everyone.

So how did Delvey get away with it? As much as the real Delvey has been sexualized — to the point that her crimes just aren’t taken as seriously as, say, the con man at the center of “The Tinder Swindler” — the series draws back from easy classifications. Sure, she looks the part, with designer duds, trendy dark glasses and a heavy German-Russian accent that sometimes borders on the ridiculously sublime. (Garner’s habit of laying it on thick will make you thankful for closed captions.) Vivian notes how much easier it would be to explain all these men falling for her grift if she were sleeping with them (or promising to sleep with them). But the series prefers to let those emotional drivers ride as subtext.

Like Rhimes’ other big Netflix series, “Bridgerton,” “Inventing Anna” is designed for compulsive binge-viewing. Each episode easily flows into the next, despite the changing points of view. But by refusing to pin down Anna’s behavior and motivations, the show fails to convict her (at least in the court of prestige TV). This can feel frustrating. The audience is left to interpret her behavior for themselves. It also has a softening effect, reducing her crimes to the tricks of a sly, audacious “girlboss.”

As some have noted before, streaming services (especially Netflix) have previously gotten in trouble for romanticizing and sexualizing “brilliant” criminals. Delvey wasn’t an incredibly unique fraudster. She used her appearance as a young, conventionally attractive white woman to make her con work. That facade, coming hard on the heels of rumors of honeypot traps and accusations against Maria Butina, made this story a titillating viral hit. Netflix took the bait, and Delvey was happy to (try to) take the money and run.

“Inventing Anna” is also part of a recent trend of shows highlighting the intense and sometimes shady exploits of the overly ambitious. Hulu’s “The Dropout,” about Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes, released a trailer this week. Showtime’s “Super Pumped,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Uber’s Travis Kalanick, premieres later this month. AppleTV+’s “WeCrashed,” about the rise and fall of WeWork, arrives in March. Each of these will most likely be like Vivian, trying to find the real story: “Something about class, social mobility, identity under capitalism … I don’t know.”

But sometimes there is no morality tale — because your subject is simply amoral. It’s not a comfortable ending, but perhaps, like Anna, we don’t deserve one.

Ani Bundel

Ani Bundel is a cultural critic who has been writing regularly since 2010. Her work can also be found at Elite Daily and WETA’s Telly Visions, where she also co-hosts “Telly Visions: The Podcast.”

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