Anna Delvey became a viral sensation in 2018 thanks to a New York magazine story by Jessica Pressler that delved into how Delvey, not yet 25, fooled dozens of high-rolling New Yorkers — from luxury hotel managers and personal trainers to Nobu founder Richie Notar and, crucially, investment bankers — into thinking she was an heiress. They believed her when she said that the wire transfer was coming or that the credit card was good, just because she dressed and acted the part. That little trick yielded months of hotel stays she never paid for and came awfully close to netting her millions of dollars in loans to start an art-focused social club she called the Anna Delvey Foundation. The story went viral because it read like a Netflix series you couldn’t wait to watch. That Netflix series has arrived, and it delivers.
According to New York magazine and the series, which hews closely to the article, Anna had an undeniable, and somewhat inexplicable, power over people. As Pressler wrote: “During the course of my reporting, people kept asking: Why this girl? She wasn’t superhot, they pointed out, or super-charming; she wasn’t even very nice.” Pressler concluded: “Anna looked at the soul of New York and recognized that if you distract people with shiny objects, with large wads of cash, with the indicia of wealth, if you show them the money, they will be virtually unable to see anything else.” This accounts for the theme of the article and the series, but there’s something else that must be true of the real Anna, and is certainly true of the Netflix Anna: She is endlessly watchable.
It certainly helps that her story is being told by Shonda Rhimes, the master of watchable — and addictive — television. Rhimes isn’t just an executive producer, as she was on the first Shondaland Netflix project, “Bridgerton,” or her empire’s last network sensation, “How to Get Away With Murder.” She created “Inventing Anna” herself and wrote the pilot, something she hasn’t done since “Scandal” launched in 2012. The nine-episode season unfolds as a mystery, through the eyes of a fictionalized version of Pressler: Vivian Kent, a very pregnant reporter at Manhattan magazine, who is in career purgatory after a story she wrote turned out to be false. This gives her stakes of her own, and, as played by a harried Anna Chlumsky, she is someone to root for.
But make no mistake: The driving force here is the mystery of Anna Delvey, played as cunning, bratty, and narcissistic by Julia Garner (“Ozark”). Anna introduces herself thusly when Vivian begins visiting her for interviews at Rikers Island after her arrest: “I am an icon. A legend.” You don’t totally believe her, but you do believe she believes it, and this itself is a sight to behold. The entire series rests on this performance, which could have grown grating very quickly in the wrong hands. Anna’s mishmash accent, somewhere between German and Russian and something else entirely, could have sunk the enterprise on its own. But in Garner’s mouth, it is, in fact, kind-of iconic. Watch enough of the series and she’ll infect your brain; you’ll start reading sentences to yourself in Anna’s voice. You’ll get as obsessed with her as Vivian and those who knew Anna do.
As Vivian investigates, we meet Anna’s circle of mystified friends, many of whom benefited from her largesse, and a few of whom were victimized by her cons. And Rhimes has brought in all her favorites, as well as a number of other people’s favorites, to populate the cast. Everyone is played by someone you loved in something or another. Kate Burton is giving us the regality of a peak-career Ellis Grey (from “Grey’s Anatomy”) as Anna’s sometime mogul mentor, and Jeff Perry (“Scandal”) turns down the menace and turns up the paternal charm as one of Vivian’s fellow reporters. Laverne Cox (“Orange Is the New Black”) oozes warmth and wisdom as high-end personal trainer, Kacy; Arian Moyaed (“Succession”) is Anna’s understandably exasperated lawyer, Todd; Anders Holm (“The Mindy Project,” “Workaholics”) does his reliably cute husband thing as Vivian’s reliably cute husband, Jack; and Katie Lowes (“Scandal”) is the right balance of brittle and broken as the friend Anna defrauds. You can’t IMDb them all fast enough: Anthony Edwards (“ER”), Anna Deavere Smith (“West Wing”), Debra Mooney (“Grey’s Anatomy”), Josh Malina (“Scandal,” “West Wing”) — everyone has come to play.
It’s fun to see a real-life story passed through the Shondaland lens. Unlike “Bridgerton,” “Inventing Anna” goes full Shonda. Anna’s antics deliver plot twists and mysteries worthy of “How to Get Away With Murder” and “Scandal.” “Inventing Anna” also capitalizes on Rhimes’ gift for mixing business and personal relationships, building little teams of friends and colleagues who care about each other and show it through their work. Vivian’s rapport with three older writers at work — who have cubicles near her in what’s dubbed “scriberia,” because they’ve all been put out to pasture — is particularly touching. Much of the dialogue is classically quotable Rhimes. One of Anna’s fashion-world friends asks Vivian about Anna’s jailhouse fashion: “What do they have her in? Orange?” Vivian answers: “Grey.” He nods. “Better.” Anna spits out constantly insightful, uncomfortable truths: “You think there was some evolution, like in the movies or whatever,” she says when pressed about her background. “But I was always who I am.”
The late-2010s narrative ties her thematically to Trump’s America and makes her explicitly equivalent to both “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli, who shows up at one of Anna’s dinner parties, and Fyre Festival fraudster Billy McFarland, with whom she shares a co-working space for a bit. Somehow, linking her to all of these men comes off as a twisted kind of compliment. She was in the game, too, the series seems to be telling us. As an extra nice touch, the soundtrack consists mostly of female rappers, underlining the thrill of seeing a baby-faced young woman sticking it to (mainly) a bunch of Wall Street dudes.
Parts of the storytelling are downright ludicrous, as in any good Shondaland series. The journalism on display is … messy and (hopefully) unlikely. Vivian starts out convincing Anna not to take a plea deal just because it’s the only way to keep the story alive; she explicitly promises Anna she’ll make her famous, and the implication is that this lands with Anna. Vivian ends up providing wardrobe from her own closet for Anna’s trial. And though the trial is interesting, the story drags a touch toward the end once we know as much of the truth as we’ll get.
But these are small prices to pay for a front-row seat to a great story of our time brought to life by Rhimes. During her trial, Anna complains, “I’m a serious person, and you make me sound like I made everything up.” Around the same time, Kacy accuses a friend, who’s stubbornly loyal to Anna, of being “Satan’s secretary.” So who is Anna? A serious person, a serial liar — or Satan? There’s no way of really knowing, but one thing’s for sure: She’s a TV star.
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is the author of “Sex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Changed the Way We Think, Live, and Love,” as well as “Seinfeldia,” “When Women Invented Television” and “Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted.”