I was embarrassed every time my husband walked through the room and saw what I was watching. Three episodes earlier, I had admitted that both main characters were driving me nuts. That the con artist was charmless, the journalist an odd combination of schoolgirl emotionality and driven, self-centered obsession. That she actually said to her editor, “I give good story,” which made me gag.
The whole show was shallow and obnoxious. But I was still watching. Still wincing at the harsh, grating, jumbled accent; still rolling my eyes at the Insta selfies. Dizzied by all the aspiration, the attempt (by nearly every character) to crawl into a better skin. Appalled by the way everybody was using everybody. The setting was one that has never appealed to me: a world of waste, indulgence, fakery and illusion, of mustered coolness and aesthetics at any price.
And I bet you already know the name of the show.
Inventing Anna was a Netflix triumph, scooping up 77.3 million hours of viewers’ time the week after its release. Critics were lukewarm, but the show was crack. And I am still trying to figure out why.
My first defense is the fact that this is a true story. “This whole story is completely true,” says the tagline. “Except for the parts that are completely made up.” Cute, but I “did the research,” as the conspiracy theorists say. Every time I was tempted to dismiss something as implausible, exaggerated, unrealistic, impossible even—I checked, and found out it really happened. In other shows inspired by true events, the hype and excess are what is injected; in Inventing Anna, once you wring out the drama-drenched performances and set aside the artificial, suspenseful timeline (any other journalist would have gone into labor before she met her deadline), you are left with Sorokin’s actual story.
Second, audacity is always fascinating. Sorokin broke rules, took without paying, combining money and image to whip up an illusion. She did what we all want to do, the show suggests, but that part is not true. I would rather hang out in the little German town she fled than in the New York world to which she aspired. What intrigues is how relentlessly (and lawlessly) she pursued her dream, how ready she was to spend her life in prison just to save her brand. What would it feel like to think your image and your pet project so important they are worth any amount of collateral damage? It is that unbreakable confidence, resilient to the point of delusion, that fascinates my timid self.
That, and how many people she dragged along for the ride.
Sorokin’s entire identity was a lie, yet she was honest in ways that you would have expected to alienate all those who wanted to help her. They were fat, stupid, incompetent, or ugly, she announced when thwarted, choosing the adjective most likely to sting. I would have chosen “masochistic.” How did a woman who is not especially lovely, charming, kind, sexy, engaging, inspiring, or thoughtful put so many people under her spell?
Sorokin once retorted, when accused of being a sociopath, that she would take it as a compliment. But she is almost too eager to be one. In four out of five situations, she qualifies, and then, just before you are ready to convict her, she does or says something that yanks her out of that category. Is she borderline, then? Just a pure narcissist? Labels do not stick. She possesses the single trait that matters for her ambition: she sees people’s weak spots immediately, sees what they want and what they lack. They choose to align themselves with her, because they so want what she has hinted she can give them. The variation in those offerings—glamour, redemption, respect, a foothold in the creative world, a little youth restored, a little rubbed-off dust from the Old World aristocracy, fame, freedom, cash, insider status, VIP privileges, a touch of style—is a measure of her talent.
People like Sorokin are also fascinating because they never stop. Over the years, I have done three exhaustive stories about con artists, all of whom seemed busted at press time. All three have resumed their tricks. Sorokin’s first words on social when released were “I’m back”—and she may well be. She has an undercover agent’s ability (the eidetic memory helps) to find and gulp new information, play a role, imitate and fool those around her. She also has an unerring ability to see—to discern quality, to envision ideas in three dimensions, to project style. Beauty matters to her. One of the series’s most telling lines is her description of dinner parties when, after two glasses of champagne, she looked around at all the “beautiful people” and felt she had finally arrived, “and then an ugly person shows up or someone tells a boring story and you’re nowhere again.”
Could my interest be a form of sympathy? She was just twenty-five, and as brittle and hollow as a stale, cheap Easter bunny. Or was that analogy just bitchy, and is what I really feel schadenfreude? No, but something akin to that: the car-wreck compulsion, needing to see just how bad something is, rather than wanting it to be bad.
The story is about coolness, the lie of it. The subtle cues high-powered New Yorkers use to decide who matters. The slick swagger of guys who fancy entrepreneurship but do no real work. There is something satisfying about this eloquent reminder that everything crumbles in the end. And it is rather fun to see the bastions of wealth and status made fools of. (It is also instructive to see that they rarely suffer; a crooked finger by one of their kind, and they are made whole again.)
Much of this series raises blood pressure. Both the not-very-professional journalist writing about Sorokin and the defense attorney representing her are horrified by her parents’ “abandonment” of her, and I find this infuriating. These two swooped into Sorokin’s life for professional reasons, and they are driven by their own strong agendas. Yet even they lose their temper with Anna, and their obsession with her destroys their equanimity and endangers their marriages. How dare they, who are secretly enjoying their addiction to the woebegone fake heiress, criticize her parents, who endured a quarter-century with a coldly indifferent child who was eager to leave them behind, and who only pretends affection when she is lying about her father’s wealth? “Children do not come from, they come through,” her mother says wearily. This is a possibility that haunts, or should haunt, all of us: the child who is a stranger to their parents.
I roll my eyes about Sorokin’s hypnotic power over her friends, but she just claimed quite a few hours of my life, too. Trying to explain “Why We Sympathise With Anna Delvey,” a piece in The Wire ends with an indignant observation that “Sorokin sits in jail while those financiers she defrauded go unpunished. Many of them are no doubt implicated in worse crimes, but so far they’ve had better luck.” True, but incomplete. They played by the rules until they had enough power and enough money to break them with impunity. She was so young and so far outside their world that she had to start backwards.
The Wire writer was onto something, though. In the end, though I hate to admit it, this show is about money. How often it consists only of smoke and mirrors; how desperately people covet what it can buy them. Sorokin is sympathetic because we know that none of those beautiful people “deserve” to live lavishly, wastefully, self-indulgently.
There are times I wish for less money (universe, do not listen) or for far more, because life in the middle leaves you worried all the time. Is this enough? What would be enough? Mattress or stock market? The abstraction of a bank balance tells nothing—the future holds too many variables. So I alternate between thinking we have plenty and being sure we will starve, and that leaves me just as mired in materialism as any shopaholic.
I do not really wish to be poorer or richer (listen now, universe). I just want a way to not think about money. Sorokin solved that problem by not caring, because she figured she could always pull another rabbit from the tophat. She ordered without glancing at the price; ran up charges without heeding any limits, and for a brief and glorious time, crime paid. The nonchalance was spellbinding, and far more intriguing than what it bought.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.