If Shondaland, the production company run by Shonda Rhimes, was an actual theme park as its name suggests, Inventing Anna would be its weird new ride set apart from all the others, not quite a rollercoaster, not quite the tunnel of love. Leading up to this series, Rhimes has become a legendary showrunner, her credentials revered and catapulted to the hallowed heights of today’s television royalty, alongside Ryan Murphy, Michael Schur, and Chuck Lorre.
The mainstream has been significantly shaped by Shonda — Private Practice, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, and the surprisingly still-running Grey’s Anatomy have given artistic credibility to melodrama, made politics entertaining long before Trump, and created spaces for creative people of color to flourish. She is undoubtedly a crucial component of the pop culture lexicon.
Shonda From Network to Netflix
However, she wasn’t exactly a critical darling, especially any time after 2014 or so, when a glut of failed single-season shows seemed to slow her down for several years. All of this is why her 2017 decision to exclusively work with the streaming giant Netflix (in a $100 million deal) was so promising. Here was a creator who could break boundaries and attract literally dozens of millions of viewers, but one who’d also been synonymous with network television and the trappings of its censorship and executive oversight. With the Netflix deal, she was getting a chance to move to the lawless Wild West of streaming, where practically anything goes, and show audiences what she was really made of.
If Bridgerton was any indication, they liked the lavish material with which she was made. The first show Shondaland produced for Netflix quickly attracted 82 million views and became the most-watched series in 76 countries, immediately renewed for three more seasons, with the second set to premiere March 25. Bridgerton was really just a higher-budget, more risqué iteration of her canceled ABC show Still Star-Crossed, and shouldn’t really be associated with Rhimes. No, audiences had to wait for Inventing Anna, released Feb. 11, to see the results of something Rhimes was a showrunner for and created, wrote, and produced.
The first episode (of the nine-part, nearly 10-hour series) immediately engenders a strong, visceral reaction from the viewer — that of bitter, annoyed contempt. A minute in, the first words of the show (in voiceover, which is oddly dropped and never returns) are spoken by the titular Anna: “This whole story, the one you’re about to sit on your fat ass and watch like a big lump of nothing, is about me. You know me. Everyone knows me. I’m an icon, a legend […] Pay attention. Maybe you’ll learn how to be smart like me. I doubt it.”
The viewer is set up to despise this woman from the start, and her bizarre, phony way of speaking (which one character refers to as a “creepy f****** accent”) doesn’t help at all; she sounds part German, a little Russian, kind of Australian, and a bit Borat. It’s honestly one of the most obnoxious things about a character who is made out to be a malignant tumor in our digital age, spreading cancerous chaos wherever she goes.
Anna Delvey (née’ Anna Sorokin) is based on a real person, just as Inventing Anna is based on the real 2018 New York Magazine article, “Maybe She Had So Much Money She Just Lost Track of It: How an Aspiring ‘It’ Girl Tricked New York’s Party People — and its Banks,” by Jessica Pressler. The title essentially tells the whole story, which concerns a mysterious con artist with a nebulous backstory who masqueraded as a rich European socialite, defrauding numerous narcissists in social media city, New York.
Julia, Garnering Attention
Simultaneously, Inventing Anna‘s best and worst decision (it’s honestly difficult to tell which) was to cast Julia Garner as Anna Delvey. Make no mistake, the two-time Emmy-winner is one of the most utterly brilliant and captivating actors working today. Her breakout roles in the horror film We Are What We Are and the glacially-paced but incredible series The Americans helped give her the attention she deserved, and her masterful work in Ozark and the underrated film The Assistant cemented her status.
She’s equally captivating in Inventing Anna, and her performance simply demands attention, but often for reasons which are counterintuitive to the success of Rhimes’ series. She is why the Los Angeles Times calls the show “a top hate-watch,” because it’s practically impossible to portray this character well without infuriating the audience. This is different from the typical antihero trope so popular in modern television; there isn’t an iota of ‘hero’ to Delvey and, unlike shows like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, Inventing Anna is wholly unable to create any affection toward its protagonist, and is incapable of getting anyone to root for its protagonist.
This actually seems to be by design. From the aforementioned opening line, to literally every single scene Delvey is in (which is a lot of them), the character is cruel, sociopathic, frustrating, and downright awful. She’s a hollow husk of a human, devoid of whatever spark ignites the human spirit. Her sole motivation is to look good, make money, ‘be a boss,’ and ensure that everyone sees her doing it. She is the dark downside to an individualistic society’s embrace of ‘the diva’ and ‘the queen.’ She is what happens when someone only cares about ‘living their truth’ without any interest in the truths of others, especially when a person’s ‘truth’ boils down to being wealthy, hot, or famous.
Garner is unfazed and unshakeable throughout it all, completely committing to her malicious character with gung-ho gusto. Yes, she colors in the role’s margins with moments of vulnerability and insecurity, turning Delvey into something like a malfunctioning robot whenever she’s caught up in her lies. She’s able to oscillate between extreme rage and tearful naif in a matter of minutes and somehow manages to create a great depth of range within a character who really doesn’t change whatsoever. Her performance almost taunts the audience in these broken moments, almost betting them to take her seriously despite having the justifiable suspicion that every emotion she displays might be a lie.
Inventing Everything Around Anna
The characters and plot which exist tangentially to ‘The Delvey Show’ is an extremely welcome relief from hate-watching Anna, and fortunately, almost everyone involved is game. Anna Chlumsky acts as the viewer’s point of entry, playing the reporter who delves into Delvey’s tale and unearths dozens of her victims, collaborators, friends, and bemused onlookers. Chlumsky has the same delightful energy she brought to Veep but with extremely less cynicism, though she inhabits the very similar ‘underestimated woman working her butt off but surrounded by men who don’t believe in her’ like she played in the HBO comedy.
Laverne Cox is also great at doing essentially the same thing she often does in shows like Orange is the New Black — a strong, fierce woman who is a kind soul but can have some powerful anger beneath her New Age leanings. Give or take the rest of the cast, and Inventing Anna has a fine and serviceable ensemble that’s certainly up for the task, but still can’t help but be dominated by Garner’s emphatic presence. Part of this is due to the script, beginning with Rhimes’ own pilot, which obviously delights in exploring just how many people this con artist fooled, and eventually hands the reins over to Garner seemingly altogether.
The script’s flashback, journalistic story pieces together conflicting accounts of Anna and the time leading up to her arrest, following her rise and fall through the upper-class elite as a kind of symbol of modern culture’s occasional vapidity and plastic emptiness. In this sense, Inventing Anna is almost like a Shondaland Citizen Kane, except instead of “Rosebud,” Delvey demands Dior.
Garner and the script combine to make a rather weird outlier in Shonda Rhimes’ continuing catalog. The show exhibits some of her traditional sarcastic workplace humor and contemporary music as a backdrop, coupled with passionate women and people of color in the foreground who are determined to do the best job that they can, with their relationships often suffering as a result. What Inventing Anna doesn’t have is the same soapy pacing, romance, and melodrama that has attracted millions to take a ride in Shondaland. The series attempts to create some stakes and momentum by making Chlumsky’s journalist increasingly pregnant, trying to finish the article before her water breaks in an odd race against the clock, but it doesn’t do anything but momentarily distract from the main draw, ‘The Delvey Show.’
There is actually surprisingly little tension and melodrama here, considering this is a very well-made and constructed Shonda show. The series takes its time, devoting each episode to a different character who’s being interviewed or discussed, strolling through Delvey’s past as leisurely as a walk through an exclusive VIP beach resort. It dissolves whatever drama it had been building around the eighth episode, when it inexplicably spends a great deal of time discussing Russian and German history, taking the journalist on a largely pointless trip through the latter country, and trying to create emotional depth by stretching a hospital conversation out to fit nearly an hour. In yet another weird ambivalence, this can be both bad and good for Inventing Anna. It creates breathing room around Delvey and actually allows viewers to stand her for lengthier periods of time, but it’s also overlong as a result.
In actuality, a very good documentary about this from someone like Alex Gibney or Errol Morris would have been much better, and shorter, than ten hours of the insufferable Delvey, but then again, that would rob the world of one of the strangest, most infuriating, bold and insufferable performances in recent memory. Shonda Rhimes is a master of the mainstream, but even she may have met her match with Anna Delvey, someone so intolerable that even the most popular of showrunners can’t handle her. Even on Netflix.