We are living through a scamming golden era. American pop culture loves a scammer, especially when an individual uses the self-improvement narrative foundational to our economic system for personal, albeit criminal, benefit. This fascination is heavily represented in the media, whether it be feature films on Tammy Faye Bakker using her televangelist audiences as cash cows or the journalistic fascination with Caroline Calloway and her steeply priced ‘creativity workshops.’ Elizabeth Holmes, famed fraudster and biotech giant, has both a buzzy miniseries and film about her coming out soon. Still, none have captured this scamming fascination quite like the story of Anna Delvey. Delvey built herself a life as a fake German heiress and New York socialite and was ultimately arrested for defrauding banks, hotels and friends of thousands of dollars. Shonda Rhimes recently adapted this story into a Netflix miniseries, “Inventing Anna” (2022), which attempts to translate Anna Delvey’s crime trajectory into a television drama. Though the series fails at many of its basic entertainment goals, it is effectively able to capture the glory and downfall of scamming that so intrigues American culture.
The show tells two dueling narratives: one of Anna Delvey (Julia Garner) and her scamming fortunes and one of Vivian Kent (Anna Chlumsky), a stand-in for real life journalist Jessica Pressler who initially uncovered the Anna Delvey story. The narrative centers on Kent’s reporting process, digging up information on Anna, her life and her scams. As Kent learns more, the story fills in the gaps with real-time narrative on Anna’s life. We see Anna defraud a myriad of individuals, whether it be the wealthy socialite who houses her (Kate Burton), the lawyer attempting to secure her a business loan (Anthony Edwards) or even her closest friends (Laverne Cox, Katie Lowes, Alexis Floyd). The series starts with Anna at the top of her game but slowly unravels into her deeper states of desperation. Ultimately Anna is caught, imprisoned and put up for trial. In this way, the show takes a downward narrative arc, starting fairly stable but slowly coming apart at the seams until Anna’s eventual downfall.
This structuring makes sense for Anna’s character growth, revealing something fundamental to the series — audiences care much more about Anna Delvey herself than the journalism surrounding her. Anna is an anomaly, whether it be her thick German — or maybe Russian? — accent or her better-than-you attitude. Her scamming feels both precarious and entrepreneurial, glorified in her ability to ‘punch up’ at the New York elite. It’s a car crash you can’t help but look at, even if you know the ultimate outcome. When that final shoe drops, and Anna is arrested, there’s a deep sense of both vindication and sadness. The Anna Delvey story is one of blurred ethics: Should we root against her, because she’s committing crimes of scale, or cheer for her, because she’s belittling some of the most pompous individuals out there? “Inventing Anna” works hard to capture this duality, and ultimately succeeds. Anna is mysterious, edgy and too cool for you — she’s television gold.
Where the story fails, however, is when it strays from Anna. The other half of the narrative centers on Vivian Kent, the journalist who slowly uncovers and obsesses over Anna’s story. Kent has her own subplots which are often disengaging or overwrought. This is no fault of Chlumsky, who does strong work with the material given; it’s simply a matter of writing and conceptualizing the story. Anna is of deep interest, and thus any straying from her narrative induces both boredom and fatigue. The show fails to recognize this, however, and instead works hard to make Kent a full and developed character. There are entire episodes dedicated to Kent’s growth and development, such as her trip to Germany to meet Anna’s family on the possibility of a follow-up article. The consequence of this narrative choice is not only significant dead air within the show, but also a wildly overlong series at large. The show has nine episodes, each ranging from 59 to 82 minutes in length. Anna’s story, quite frankly, is not that large in scale. This gives the show a deep feeling of tedium, trodding along with Kent’s slower plot as a means to get to Delvey’s more enticing story.
“Inventing Anna” does a whole lot wrong in terms of narrative structure, points of focus and even just good writing. Still, it ultimately succeeds in capturing the cultural zeitgeist of scammers and fraudsters, presenting intriguingly beautified images of Anna Delvey. The show should be a message for the writers of future scam narratives sure to come: Focus on the glamorous, crime-ridden meat of the story. There is a deep well of satisfying content within these fairly simple stories. It’s only when one averts their gaze, and focuses on individuals other than the scammers themselves, that the haughty shimmer begins to recede.