Hold on. Did I just get scammed by watching the series Inventing Anna, which is about the twenty-something-year-old fake German Heiress Anna Sorokin? Because I have been waiting weeks for the series to drop, and I watched all of it, but 600 whole minutes of largely pro-conwoman propaganda, really?!? That feels like a farce. Or is it all a deft feint of its own, meant to illuminate our complicit roles in consuming capitalism and the patriarchy? I don’t think so, but it would make it more compelling. There are definitely two things that do make the series interesting to watch, neither of which are the writing: 1. The incredible performances by many of the actors; 2. A con is a con is a con, and, like a sleight of hand trick, it’s always interesting to watch how a grifter manages to distract their audience with shiny things—you know, as long as you’re not the mark, and, in this particular case maybe not watching it for nine entire episodes.
As you may recall, those of us outside the upper echelons of elite society (or the people who serve the elite), first learned about Anna Sorokin in the Spring of 2018 when New York magazine published an article by Jessica Pressler chronicling Sorokin’s fantastical arc as “Anna Delvey,” the not-particularly-nice, but sometimes driven, heir-apparent to a huge trust fund who had designs to create the Anna Delvey Foundation or ADF, a very exclusive retreat for artists and creative-types in the heart of New York City. Like Soho House, but more exclusive. How very selfless.
She managed to swindle and stiff her way through an extremely lavish lifestyle, surrounding herself with some very powerful businessmen, power brokers, artists, tech types, fashion types, and others. She got staggeringly close to securing multi-million dollar loans by leaning right into the structures of the patriarchy and capitalism, procuring fake documents, and cooking up a fake financial advisor using only an international sim card and a voice distorter. She ran up tens of thousands of dollars in hotel, restaurant, and other bills, promising wire transfers that were somehow always caught in some hiccup or snafu. She even managed to get use of a $35,000 private jet to attend Warren Buffet’s something or other conference in Omaha without paying anyone a single dime. It was all pretty impressive how easily she managed to dupe people who should be doing some real due diligence—and maybe she got away with so much in part because people were deeply ashamed to admit they’d been had—but eventually it did fall apart, and she was arrested and sentenced to several years in prison.
The series is based on that article, except, as the series reminds us at the beginning of each episode, for the parts that are completely made up. Jessica Pressler is recast as Vivian Kent (Anna Chlumsky), a young, wrongly disgraced reporter who has been exiled to what her cubicle-mates have dubbed “Sciberia,” where older reporters are left to wither until they finally retire. For the record, the older reporters (Anna Deavere Smith, Terry Kinney, and Jeff Perry), who provide Vivian with emotional support and help her research the story, are a great supporting cast. I’d watch the spin-off about them grousing their way through their days. Anna Chlumsky as Vivian, on the other hand, feels like the wrong choice, though I can’t say exactly why. But, in a show of extremely well-cast people she feels like the pebble in your shoe, which is not a comment on her acting per se, just her character.
The series moves back and forth between Vivian working on the story and the events she’s researching as they unfolded. Vivian has a chip on her shoulder, which keeps her dogged in her pursuit of witnesses and facts, and a gestating human in her womb, which serves as a hard deadline by which she must publish and rehabilitate her reputation. (She finishes writing the last sentences as her water breaks, which is, yes, terribly cliché, but is also a comment on the constant need to hustle, and the pressures put on women to keep working no matter the risk to themselves or their potential children, so I’ll allow it.) Vivian, who eventually crosses the line of journalistic ethics so many times that I doubt she could even find it with a magnifying glass anymore, is clearly somewhat smitten with Anna from the start. It’s not just that she immediately sees the potential for a huge story, but she appears to buy into Sorokin’s constantly changing tales of childhood woe and delusions of feminist heroics. The part where I threw up my hands and yelled What the fuck are you trying to say!?! at the writers was when Vivian is in the final stage of labor and, exhausted, wants to give up. Her husband (Anders Holm) leans down to her ear and whispers that women squat in fields all the time and that she’s not special. Both are things that Anna cruelly said to Vivian during one of their visits at Rikers Island, when she also called her terribly fat. This helps Vivian dig deep and find the last bits of strength necessary to birth her baby. “I’m not special,” she yells over and over as she brings a daughter into the world. Just vaguely problematic, I’d say. Are the writers claiming that Anna, even in her sociopathic casual cruelty, is an inspiration? I honestly don’t understand. There is absolutely nothing healthy to be gained from this fiasco of a scene. Is it trying to say that Vivian is taking the opposite approach from Anna, who thinks that she is absolutely special and deserving of only VIP treatment? But, no. It still doesn’t make sense. Please, someone make it make sense!
The first few episodes lay out Anna’s (Julia Garner) earlier connections with her futurist tech boyfriend Chase (Saamer Usmani) who has a plan for an app that somehow never materializes. How romantic. Con attracts con. After supporting Chase through his fundraising and connecting him with important investors, Anna eventually tires of his shit, and decides to turn their wealthy host Nora Radford (Kate Burton)—a character who is likely an amalgam of many wealthy people Anna scammed—against him, and use her leverage to build the Anna Delvey Foundation. Of course, soon enough Nora catches on to the tens of thousands of dollars in clothing and other goods that Anna charged to her credit cards, and Anna is forced to make a quick escape to yet un-hornswoggled pastures. Julia Garner as Anna Delvey/Sorokin is a pretty stunning performance for how she disappears, chameleon-like, into the character. It feels as if you are watching Anna herself, and it’s not until you look at pictures of them side by side that you can spot the differences in their faces or mannerisms. (There’s room here for another aside about acting and conning, but I’m not going to say it.)
What the article doesn’t mention and the series only hints around in its SIX HUNDRED MINUTES is the reason that Sorokin could so easily infiltrate the spaces and places (even when she was rude or crude), the reason she was believed when she wore designer labels and spoke with an odd accent (but had hair that was a mess), and the reason no one called the cops sooner (even when money didn’t show up for huge bills) was that she was a white woman. The same is true of her time served, which was almost four years. Sure, if you compare her to the likely horrible men who work for the evil empires that she bilked for hundreds of thousands of dollars and who have certainly done many awful things, she has paid the higher cost, but are they the right comparison? Probably not. Think of Black and brown women serving far more severe sentences for minor crimes. Women who voted not realizing they weren’t eligible. Women who wrote one bad check. Women who, wanting their children to attend a better school, used someone else’s address. And I’m not even sure that’s the right comparison because in none of those example were the women consciously trying to game the system solely for personal benefit and greed, and yet they still got far stiffer sentences. Finally, it’s worth noting that Anna Sorokin financially benefited from the making of this series. She used most of the money to pay restitution for her crimes, a luxury that most people are not afforded.
Where the series is most interesting is when it focuses on Anna and her three closest, erm, friends, I guess. It’s hard to say if Anna really has friends, but these three women certainly considered themselves her friends, and at least one still does today. Neff (Alexis Floyd, who should be getting all the roles) worked as a concierge at the 12 George Hotel where Anna stayed for months and regularly tipped in $100 bills. Although fraternizing with guests was strictly prohibited, Neff, an aspiring filmmaker, took an immediate liking to Anna and Anna to Neff (perhaps in large part because Neff figured out that Anna wanted to be seen and feel special) and was soon joining her for dinners and parties, for which Anna always paid. Even today, after everything has been laid bare, the real Neff is still loyal to the real Anna, who she says has always been good to her. Is that an impressive friendship or just impressive compartmentalizing?
Rachel (Katie Lowes), a photography assistant at Vanity Fair who seemed to fawn over Anna until some major drama went down in Morocco, is drawn here largely as a hanger on and a villain, which isn’t surprising given the bias of the series. Kacy Duke (Laverne Cox), a high end personal trainer and life coach who constantly reminds her clients they are “bad bitches” who should “stand in their power” has a relationship with Anna that swings between professional, maternal, and coolly friendly. While Laverne Cox is always a joy to watch, I had difficulty getting past Kacy’s insistence that the Universe was taking care of her in various ways. I mean, the exorbitant rates she charges her clients and her general ability to sniff out bullshit better than a 20-something-year-old might have been doing more for her than some wavy gravy Universe, you know? But my favorite actor and character to watch? Anna’s lawyer Todd Spodek (Arian Moayed, who plays the delicious Stewy on Succession). Oh, sure, he also seemed to get caught up in Anna’s world, and did hours of labor, forgoing family vacations, without ever being paid, and maybe trying to save her. Plus, the writers just had him give some really very questionable inspirational speeches toward the end of the series, which I will not regale you with here and now. But, even with all that, I kept watching in large part because I was waiting for more Todd Spodek scenes with his combination of warmth, candor, sarcasm, and gentle exasperation.
I would have taken even more focus on the people around Anna because I’ve got to say that she is really only interesting up to a certain point. What she did is interesting. How she did it is interesting. That she managed to get away with for so long is interesting. But I’m not sure how interesting Anna Sorokin is as a person when you start digging beyond the designer sunglasses and the intimidating facade and the cutting phrases. Certainly, this series didn’t come up with anything particularly thought provoking and compelling. Least of all when they started digging into her past, which quickly turned maudlin and very prime time drama. But maybe that’s part of the appeal of adapting her story; the vagueness leaves room to fill blanks with whatever best suits the observer’s needs. It’s not a new thing, of course, to make a woman a villain, a vixen, and a victim based on the viewer’s bias. But isn’t it possible that Anna Sorokin is just a criminal who had some luck and some skill and isn’t very interesting beyond that? That she’s just another cog in the machinery of capitalism and the patriarchy?