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Inventing Anna

ZM

Emoji summary: 😎 👩🏾‍💻 💢

I love pop culture’s toxic white women, especially the Americans. Even when I hate them, when they irritate and annoy me, I love them. You might remember that I had a great time during the Caroline Calloway years. And now I can’t wait for that Elizabeth Holmes documentary. I would pay good money to spend a day in her head, just bumbling around having a look at things. I read the NY mag article about Taylor Lorenz’s feud and the move to the Washington Post. I thought ‘I must keep tabs on this!’ because I’m dead certain that’ll be an emerging drama in the future, and I want to be prepared to hit the ground running when it all kicks off. I even still love Joanne the Scammer, because amongst the drama and humour is a deadpan fiction that still hits the spot. It’s all the drama Mick! I just love it! I love the girlboss grift. I eat it up.

Scandals about men don’t hit in the same way. The Fyre Festival documentary was good but only for its comic value, in an Arrested Development kinda way. The Tinder Swindler was just sad. ‘Man lies on dating app’ is banal, standard. None of you are 6 foot 2 and it IS important. Pop culturally speaking, the frat bro heist just ends up being male privilege malfunctioning. There’s nothing surprising about men trying to blag their way through something. So, when their enormous scams fail, it just feels like a sad soggy thump. Nothing like the cartoon punchline of a girlboss scammer.

Inventing Anna is the newest series from Shonda Rhimes. It’s on Netflix’s little ‘Top 10 in the UK’ listicle, so it really feels like everyone in the entire world is watching it. I finished it over a week while doing other things, only half paying attention. The half of me that was paying attention needed a soothing serotonin hit of something reliably ok. It’s all very Shondaland: telling us the story of Anna Delvey and her big hustle. There’s heavy drama. Sometimes the acting gets silly. And in that, the show makes very specific choices.

There’s one thing we have to get straight: Anna Delvey is my perfect girlboss scammer. A complete random who popped up in New York in the 2010s, she told a bunch of fancy hedge fund banker bros that she was a German heiress with a fat trust fund. Then, she asked them to lend her a couple of million dollars to start a ‘dynamic visual arts centre SLASH private members club a la Soho House’? It nearly worked until it didn’t. In 2018, an article in New York magazine blew the lid: Anna Delvey was actually Anna Sorokin, a Russian woman who didn’t have a trust fund. She did have a bunch of forged wire transfer receipts though, and rich friends who could pay her way with a polite IOU. She also had the absolute fucking audacity. It was a scam! And it was delicious! Because a bunch of rich people had been swindled. The art world loves money and doesn’t need to see it to believe it — just look at the breathless excitement around NFTs. Everyone eats it up, everyone is still kinda losing their minds. God, I love the frenzy! When it feels like everyone on the internet is looking at the same thing and screaming. 2018: the crest of my very online brainrot years. I was young, hot and messy. I ate the Anna Delvey story up because it was a mess that didn’t implicate me in any way, but it still spoke to me in my language: art and power, hustling the old guard, the rush of being in a big city and making a name for yourself. We all still believed in the mythic power of the girlboss back then. Things are a different now.

Inventing Anna tells the story through the perspective of Vivian Hunt, a very fictional journalist who works at Manhattan Magazine (I see what you did there). She used to be at the top of her game, girlbossing it like a romcom protagonist. But then something professionally bad happened - we aren’t immediately told what that is but it hangs over her like a tumultuous, silent cloud. She’s been banished to Scriberia, a desk cluster where older writers who are past their prime get sent; put out to pasture for a gentle ramp down into retirement. Vivian teeters over that edge with them too. She’s very pregnant and looking for a way to engineer her journalistic redemption before the baby comes and gives her a new, plural identity. Jesus Christ. Even the image of journalism as a profession feels like fictional magic: writers with job security, a full time contract and maternity leave? NOT FREELANCE? IN THIS ECONOMY? I can’t. It feels like another century, and I have to make such an enormous mental leap to suspend my disbelief for the background and set up alone.

But Vivian stumbles across Anna’s story when it is coming to its end — when she’s been taken to jail. Vivian fights with her bland male editor about the validity of pitching this story. He thinks Anna’s a dumb wannabe socialite but Vivian insists that this is a story about class, social mobility, feminism, big financial institutions, their gatekeepers, and our identity under capitalism. She gets some extra time to work on the story but the clock is ticking. The show starts with an ex-girlboss babe on a time crunched mission to prove a point.

As Vivian figures out what happened to Anna (or what Anna made happen), the story unfolds for us too. We watch the Anna Delvey scam come together as Vivian goes round interviewing the people involved. We view it from multiple perspectives, as they are told to Vivian. And Vivian starts butting in and bothering Anna’s lawyer, Todd, this kinda shitty-but-has-a-heart-of-gold guy whose legal offices are in a WeWork. They bounce their discoveries off each other, building the picture of the scam in tandem. It gets wilder and bigger and messier. More bravado, more audacity. The scale zooms out. As the series continues, Anna makes a plan for her art space slash social club, and the scams take on a direction. People come out of the woodwork, withholding their hurt and embarrassment, so Vivian has to tease it out of them in tense exchanges. As they tell their stories about Anna, we get fun messy rich people moments, good meme-y soundbite dialogue that’s already popping up on my TikTok FYP. And the clock just keeps ticking on: is someone else going to get to this story first, is someone going to change their mind about what’s on the record, is the editor man going to pull the piece and cut the magazine’s losses, and is Vivian going to manage to write this piece in time, before the baby comes???

It sounds like it should be good TV! We have all the right components. It’s within reach, it’s for the taking. But there is something big holding the series back from reaching its full potential.

First: Vivian thinks Anna is a ‘feminist antihero’. That’s what she says and that’s how she treats her. On a human level, I get it. There is a common thread linking these women together, an unspoken bond. They are both women who have failed in some capacity; Anna at pulling off this heist, and Vivian at being a ‘good’ journalist. They are both surrounded by men who fail upwards, who are afforded graces that they don’t have access to. Both of them have had to clench and reckon with their own failures and be held accountable. That is so juicy and interesting. I just wish it had been delivered in a more sophisticated way. Because as the episodes roll out, this shared experience of failure becomes a girlboss redemption cycle. Vivian is a working mother, and the unborn baby plays such a cerebral role in her motivation. She’s cooking a kid in her belly and a story in her brain; she gives birth to them both in tandem like some 90’s/00’s feminist ‘get the work done’ throwback. Literally, as Vivian gives birth and PUSHES a CHILD out of her vagina, she screams ‘I need to do the work, I NEED TO DO THE WORK’. Labour and labour, being in, really IN labour. This core value, of work being necessary, needed, this sits at the centre of the story Vivian thinks she’s telling. From that centre it leaks out and colours the entire arc of the series. Anna stops being someone who girlbossed a little too close to the sun and she becomes a vessel through which Vivian can renegotiate her relationship to success. And I don’t mean to turn this into a galaxy brain hot take, I’m just saying that I fucking hated that.

Also. There is not a single likeable character in this series. Not a single one. And I’m fine with that because again, I love the mess and the drama. But they’re unlikeable and perfect. Vivian is annoying but she is the perfect obsessed reporter. Her husband is forgettable but even he’s the perfect bland supportive husband. Todd is incompetent and overinvolved but he’s the perfect scrappy underdog lawyer. His wife is the perfect rich, beautiful, clever and understanding wife. Their partners only chip in momentarily so they can drive the plot forward, add spicy intrigue. They are perfect supporting characters. Kacy is Anna’s annoying spiritual friend but she’s the perfect woowoo self-love life coach girly; Neff is the perfect spiky best friend; Rachel is just the PERFECT self-victimising white woman. As we wheeled through this mad cast of characters, I found myself pining after a spanner in the works of this perfect world. I wished Todd’s wife and Vivian’s husband would just pull a fast one and have an affair. I wished Neff and Kacy had a conversation about how crazy all these white people were. I wished the futurist boyfriend had returned for vengeance. I wished for blood, a fight, a climax. I wanted chaos.

The story is told mostly through Vivian’s perspective, and I understand why. It’s a good technical choice that makes the mechanics of storytelling so much cleaner. For the sake of understanding, the timeline of drama and events has to be kept neat so that we can actually follow along. But the story is coming to us through people’s individual accounts, stories in retrospect as they were told to Vivian, the journalist. I wanted the drama we usually find in Shonda’s recognisable style, at Netflix series scale. It could’ve been so good! But it was too neat, too contained. We are told the story as it’s told to Vivian, and by Vivian, and it arrives at us in this neat, sanitised package. It’s pre-processed, a serious article already. All the good bits have been smoothed off and polished out.

I don’t want chaos so it can feel more like real life. I want the chaos so it can feel more like fiction, like melodrama. It feels like a silly wish because I think what I’m looking for doesn’t exist. I think the missing part I’m pining after is Anna’s perspective. Throughout the series, we never enter her head. She remains unknowable and mysterious. But the actual Anna Delvey is quite boring, at least on instagram. I scrolled back (of course i scrolled back) to her posts from before before before, when she was this gallery girly, and her posts were just the usual. Venice, Basel, in front of a jet (in greyscale), Koons, Kusama, Hirst, Gagosian, Pace. Boring boring boring! It’s all just rich people art, blue-chip and bankable. No taste, no actual fun, just money, or the image of it at least. But that checks out because very rich people in the art world are not serious about their own richness. They are not real people; they have very bad breath; they have stilted conversations; they are embarrassing at parties. Like, it’s not glamorous. The art world isn’t really where chic rich people go. They turn up at the Frieze VIP day and hang around awkwardly in their boat shoes and Joseph coats, stilettos scraping along the weird tent carpet. So maybe it’s better to not enter Anna’s head and tell the story from there. Maybe that’d be impossible or boring. Maybe it’s just banal looking back on it as ancient history. Maybe you had to be there.

Inventing Anna falls flat because it looks for a logic, a reason, a motivation. The thing that makes Anna Delvey the perfect girlboss scammer is that, from the outside, it was all so fucking random and ridiculous. The series tries to make it into a good story by inserting narrative structure and storytelling mechanics, but the beauty of it was in its silliness. It makes me feel ridiculous to say this but I prefer the clickbait fiction. I just think some things are best left to fade away, until they become urban legend.

screenshot from beginning credits of Inventing Anna, the restaged MY mag cover, where a closeup high contrast photo of Anna looking windswept is sat next to a headline that reads: maybe she jus had so much money she lost track of it