There are two main characters in producer Shonda Rhimes’ new Netflix miniseries Inventing Anna, both based on real people. The first is Anna Delvey (played by Julia Garner): a cunning and stubbornly mysterious con artist who a few years back duped several well-connected rich folks and multiple high-end New York City institutions into believing she was an aristocratic European heiress and fundraiser. Born in Russia as Anna Sorokin, she spent time in Germany, London, and Paris before visiting New York and finding it strangely easy to slip into the social circles of the obscenely wealthy. She then became a minor celebrity after her story was told by the reporter Jessica Pressler in a lengthy 2018 New York Magazine profile.
The second major character in Inventing Anna is Pressler … but not entirely. The show is officially adapted from Pressler’s article; and she’s one of its producers. But her character (played by Anna Chlumsky) has been renamed Vivian Kent, and the magazine she writes for is now Manhattan. While Vivian shares some biographical traits with Pressler — most notably the lingering sting of a big professional embarrassment — the name-change indicates that Vivian shouldn’t be seen as exactly the same person who wrote the New York story.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this switch. Movie and TV movie producers fiddle with the particulars of true stories all the time: for legal reasons, for poetic license, or because using the real person’s name and details might be intrusive. (Pressler’s not really a public figure, so it’s possible she insisted on the change.) It’d be unfair to criticize Inventing Anna based on how closely or not Vivian resembles her real-life inspiration, because that clearly isn’t what Rhimes and her team set out to do.
That said, it is worth noting how the character has been fictionalized, because that speaks to what the storyteller thinks makes for a compelling protagonist — and why a journalist’s life might need tweaking to be more “dramatic.”
Inventing Anna begins with Vivian at a low professional ebb. A former rising star, she made a glaring error in a buzzy article and subsequently saw a prestigious new gig evaporate. She’s now hanging on by her fingernails at her old Manhattan job, stuck in a corner cubicle among the magazine’s unfashionable old-timers, where she half-heartedly chases whatever trendy story her editor assigns. She’s also heavily pregnant, but ignores the advice of her friends and husband to take early maternity leave, because she’s determined to regain her lost prestige.
The Anna Delvey story could be Vivian’s last big shot. It encompasses so many quintessentially New York themes: An immigrant reinventing herself in a land of opportunity; the preoccupation with the projection of success over true substance; and the sometimes destructive results of FOMO envy in a city where someone is always out-thriving someone else.
This is all prime material for a Shonda Rhimes project, too. Though Rhimes made her reputation with the hit medical melodrama Grey’s Anatomy, the most influential shows from her Shondaland production company have been the likes of Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder and Bridgerton: stories about the ways the powerful flex their privilege, and the ways they can be brought low by small-timers bearing grudges and guile.
Inventing Anna features a lot of what Rhimes fans enjoy about her work. The characters are rendered broadly but not cartoonishly. The villains have layers; the heroes have weaknesses. The surfaces shine, the dialogue is snappy, and the cast has pep. (Garner in particular seems to be having a lot of fun with Anna’s various bits of schtick: doing a thick Russian accent; mocking Vivian for her frumpiness; and philosophizing about how to be fabulous.)
Plus the plot is grabby, relying heavily on teasing out mysteries. As Vivian digs into exactly what Anna did — and how she almost got away with it — Rhimes and her writers keep dropping hints that this story may be bigger than our intrepid reporter realizes, due to the many New York elites who’ll be humiliated by it. The series rather provocatively suggests that Anna could be seen as a kind of folk hero, using the mega-wealthy’s own snobbery against them.
But there are flaws here that are hard to ignore. The biggest is Inventing Anna’s ridiculous length. Most of its nine episodes run over an hour, with one hovering around 80 minutes. Frankly, there’s not enough in the source material to justify this. Though Pressler’s original article is what people in publishing call “a long read,” it’s still roughly the length of a short story. To pad it out, Rhimes and company continue past the publication of the original article in New York (sorry, Manhattan), to cover some of what happened next. They also go deeper into the characters, exploring their personal lives and conflicts.
It’s here where the fictionalizing of a real-life journalist into “Vivian” becomes the most noticeable, as she becomes more The Hero In A Story and less A Person Who Actually Exists. Right from the start, Inventing Anna sets Vivian up as a reckless striver, taking a “better to apologize than ask permission” approach to her job. When her boss — rather inexplicably — doesn’t see the potential in the Anna Delvey piece and instead insists she keep working on a “Wall Street #MeToo” story, she ignores him, because she doesn’t see yet another expose of institutional sexual harassment as her ticket back to the big time.
There is a lot of shoe-leather investigation in Inventing Anna, as Vivian chases down interviews and gathers documents, filing the function of the detective in a crime story. But rather than framing the Anna Delvey piece as Vivian’s opportunity to say something revealing about New York’s culture of fame and fortune, the article is shown more as a glittering prize she has to win, to silence her doubters and to compensate for her failures.
This particular way that Vivian’s character is centered in Inventing Anna recalls 2019’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which had Matthew Rhys playing a fictional character based on the reporter Tom Junod, who wrote the heart-tugging 1998 Esquire article about Mr. Rogers that inspired the movie. The movie emphasized the faux-Junod’s personal problems and career struggles, rather than the multiple major awards the real-life writer had won. Similarly, the fictional Vivian doesn’t get to share Pressler’s biggest win: writing the article that was adapted into the hit 2019 movie Hustlers (already in development prior to the Delvey piece). Having the characters be well-respected and accomplished doesn’t make for a good story, apparently.
These kinds of gaps between the dramatic idea of a journalist as a dogged pursuer of truth and the job’s actual grinding work are all too common in fiction. The Freeform drama The Bold Type featured some of the more accurate depictions of modern journalism, with its cast of fashion magazine staffers dealing with clueless corporate bosses and the pressures of having to trend positively on social media. But even that show often fell well short. The typical Bold Type characters’ work day consisted of sitting around a fabulous downtown New York office in the morning talking about a Very Important Issue they wanted to tackle in the magazine, then dealing with self-doubt and internal political pressure all afternoon before late at night hurriedly knocking out a short column mostly written in first-person.
Granted, it’s not like cops, lawyers, or doctors — or really a member of any other profession — are typically portrayed accurately on-screen. But given that so many show business impresarios got their start as writers, it’s odd that they’re so often ungenerous to journalists as characters. Inventing Anna isn’t as egregious as some TV shows or movies where reporters lie, break laws and even sleep with sources to land a story. But as terrific as Chlumsky is in the role, her Vivian still tends to come across as shallowly obsessed with success — and not with, say, writing something as gripping, probing and impressively polished as Pressler’s actual Delvey article. The work is rarely seen as an end unto itself.
It’s remarkable too in the case of Inventing Anna that this story about a phony who fooled a bunch of New Yorkers — by crafting a familiarly appealing image — has itself been carefully constructed to be more conventional. The series doesn’t show much interest in understanding what a journalist actually does or why; it’s more about understanding the motivations of a generic underdog who’s fighting to right a personal wrong. In the end, both the main characters remain somewhat opaque, because they’re defined less by their specific goals than by the nebulous act of wanting.
[Disclosure: Vox Media, Polygon’s parent company, also owns New York magazine, which published the Anna Delvey article.]