The Pitch: If there is one constant running through the work of Shonda Rhimes, it’s this: Her instincts for what makes a good story are dead on. Not every show with her name on it is an out-of-the-gate hit like Bridgerton or Grey’s Anatomy — rest in peace, The Catch, a great little show about con artists that deserved more of a chance. But it’s impossible to say that a Shondaland series is ever boring.
Speaking of con artists, though… Inventing Anna, the new limited series premiering this Friday on Netflix, represents Rhimes’ first Netflix project that bears her name as not just a producer, but a creator. And you can sense why she chose not to hand this project off to someone else, given how many delicate elements are involved in these nine episodes — primarily, the depiction of its two lead characters, and what exactly this show is trying to say about them.
I’m the Hot Girl, I’m the It Bitch: “This whole story is completely true. Except for all the parts that are totally made up,” an epigraph declares as the notorious Anna Delvey (Julia Garner) introduces herself as the star of the show — the self-proclaimed German heiress who left thousands of dollars of unpaid bills behind as she partied her way around the world and pursued her dream of opening up a social club called the Anna Delvey Foundation.
While many true crime stories right now focus on dramatizing the crimes being perpetuated, Inventing Anna adds an extra layer from the jump by putting its narrative voice front and center in the form of Vivian (Anna Chlumsky), a reporter whose drive to not just uncover Anna’s tale, but understand who exactly Anna is, fuels the narrative of the series.
While technically based on Jessica Pressler, the real-life reporter who wrote the original Anna Delvey profile for New York, Vivian has her own history and her own complicated reasons for why a feature article on a recently arrested young woman is one she’s determined to pursue.
(Side note: What witchcraft did Pressler perform so that fictionalized versions of herself would be played on screen by both Chlumsky and Hustlers‘ Julia Stiles? Because that is some dangerous but wildly valuable magic, should she care to share.)
As Vivian investigates Anna’s life, social media proves to be an effective tool in tracking down acquaintances of the newly-arrested socialite, some of whom are still somewhat fond of their supposedly generous friend, while others are deeply skeptical and in some cases furious at the way Anna treated them prior to her arrest.
Rich Bitch With Some Rich Friends: Central to this is a small clique consisting of Rachel (Katie Lowes) and Kacy (Laverne Cox), and a now-infamous trip to Marrakesh that Anna said she’d pay for, but did not, leaving Rachel to cover tens of thousands of dollars of charges on her own credit cards — including a company credit card that leaves her position as a Vanity Fair book editor in serious jeopardy.
Rachel’s character is essential to understanding the show’s key question: How did Anna do it? Not embezzling an extremely large sum of money — but, rather, managing to integrate herself into some pretty powerful circles of influence with little more than charm and style and some bad checks.
It’s a question Vivian gets obsessed with, even as big changes loom in her life, including one deadline she can’t ignore: At the start of the series, she’s several months pregnant, and that baby is coming whether or not Vivian’s finished her article.
Love a Lot of Zeros, but I Don’t F*ck With No Losers: The chief flaw of Inventing Anna is that it never fully commits to telling one person’s specific story, even when portions of the overall narrative are handed off to supporting characters. This means that even while we’re deep in a flashback to a past incident, present-day complications keep interrupting, sometimes distracting from the show’s focus.
But, that said, all of the tiny pieces of Anna’s life, unveiled in this way, do ultimately contribute to a portrait done in the style of collage — not necessarily a complete picture, but a vibrant one. (Coming up with that metaphor wasn’t a struggle, because it’s something the show openly acknowledges with its opening credits sequence, as Instagram photos combine to create Anna’s headshot.)
Along those lines, there’s also a lingering potential thread about the dangers of social media, how one of Anna’s superpowers was being able to sell her glamorous existence online, thus creating a fog obscuring the reality of her life. But fortunately, the show doesn’t pursue that idea too hard, instead acknowledging the truth that like it or hate it, it’s an inescapable part of modern life to some degree.
I’m a Boss Bitch, I Don’t Need Help: This is the first show created by Rhimes since Scandal, and for fans of that incredibly compelling series, one of Anna‘s more delicious joys is seeing Rhimes bring together some of that show’s alumni for key roles, including Jeff Perry as Lou, one of Vivian’s cranky officemates, Kate Burton as one of Anna’s one-time marks, and the aforementioned Lowes, who does an excellent job of capturing Rachel both as a victim and then, later, an opportunist.
Chlumsky brings every dogged bit of the fight she showed in Veep to Vivian, this time in a leading role that celebrates her character’s rough edges. Meanwhile, Garner once again proves her ability to create a captivating character — whether you first discovered her on Netflix’s Ozark as the fiery Ruthie, in Kitty Green’s excellent indie film The Assistant, or via some other project, you’ll see a brand new side of her here, a casually cruel yet sometimes kind force of chaos whose likability is rarely questionable.
It’s an element of her performance that is essential to the series, given its difficult task of convincing skeptical viewers of the truth — that it was possible for Anna to get away with all this for as long as she did.
The Verdict: The success of Inventing Anna ultimately rests on Vivian as a character, and fortunately she makes for a perfect audience surrogate, with just enough of an edge to make her compelling and a bit dangerous to watch. In telling a story about a complicated woman through the lens of another complicated woman, Rhimes builds a lot of nuance into the narrative, ensuring the show’s escape from quick and easy judgment.
There are a number of reasons why we love stories about con artists — not just the audacity of their crimes, but the satisfying moment of their comeuppance when they’re caught. Rhimes gets it, and brings the full force of her storytelling powers to the task. The result is one of the most fascinating series of the year so far, playing right into our collective loves of gossip and scandal — because Rhimes knows exactly what she’s doing.
Where to Watch: All nine episodes of Inventing Anna premiere Friday, February 11th on Netflix.