Shonda Rhimes' new Netflix series about real-life scam artist Anna Delvey is too bloated and meandering to be any fun.

"This story is completely true. Except for the parts that are totally made up." That cheeky disclaimer pops up in unexpected places — on a brass plaque outside an exclusive Manhattan athletic club, blaring across a digital billboard in Times Square, stenciled on the cement-block walls of a prison — at the start of every episode of Netflix's Inventing Anna. It's emblematic of the cake-and-eat-it attitude of this bloated true-crime drama from Shonda Rhimes, which alternately seeks to scold and celebrate New York con artist Anna Delvey (Julia Garner) and the relentless reporter who brought her story to light.

In October of 2017, Russian-born Anna Sorokin was arrested outside of a Malibu rehab on multiple charges of grand larceny and theft. She'd spent the past four years posing as globe-trotting German heiress Anna Delvey, a wunderkind seeking high-end investors for an exclusive social club and art gallery that she dubbed the "Anna Delvey Foundation." With her chic fashion and aloof mystique, Sorokin not only looked the part, she lived it — ingratiating herself into wealthy society circles and convincing more than a few New York power players to take her seriously. By the time she was convicted of swindling $200,000 from banks, luxury hotels, and a private jet company, Anna was a tabloid celebrity — thanks in part to a juicy feature in New York magazine by Jessica Pressler.

"She's everything that is wrong with America right now!" declares Assistant District Attorney Catherine McCaw (Rebecca Henderson) in the premiere episode. "No one's going to convict her!" scoffs Anna's lawyer, Todd Spodek (Succession's Arian Moayed), in response. "She's Robin Hood. She's a folk hero!" Inventing Anna (premiering Feb. 11) is the type of show where characters speak in Broad Themes. "Everyone here is running a game," notes Neff (Alexis Floyd), a hotel concierge who Anna befriended during a long-term stay. "Everyone here wants something. Money, power, image, love." It's the type of show where dogged journalist Vivian Kent (Anna Chlumsky) papers a wall in her apartment with a Homeland-style collage of Post-It notes and photos of Anna from Instagram, turns to her befuddled husband (Anders Holm) and says, "Who the hell is Anna Delvey?" And Inventing Anna is the type of show where every episode (and there are nine of them) is at least 10 minutes too long. (The shortest runtime is 59 minutes.)

Though it's based on Pressler's article, Inventing Anna is really the story of two women with something to prove. It begins in 2017, as Vivian (a character "inspired" by Pressler) is weeks away from giving birth to her first child. Her career at Manhattan magazine has been stalled for years, ever since she wrote a piece for the publication about a high school kid who earned millions on the stock market — only to have the kid admit later that he made it all up. (A similar situation happened to Pressler in real life.) When she sees a NY Post article about a "wannabe socialite" arrested for skipping out on hotel bills, Vivian is certain there is more to the story — perhaps enough to earn her journalistic redemption before her baby girl is born. Anna, meanwhile, is brilliant. Well-versed in art and wine and culture, she is an aspiring businesswoman with a photographic memory and a pathological need to persuade the money men of New York that she, a young female immigrant, is worth their time and money.

This is Shonda Rhimes' second series for Netflix, and it has all the hallmarks of a soapy Shondaland treat — wealth tangoing with power and intrigue, suspense, sudden betrayals. The cast is full of the producer's favorites: Scandal's Katie Lowes as Rachel DeLoache Williams, a Vanity Fair photo editor who is forced to foot a $62,000 vacation bill when Anna's "wire transfer" never materializes; Grey's Anatomy's Kate Burton as Nora Radford, a socialite Anna and her tech-entrepreneur boyfriend (Saamer Usmani) glom onto for a while; Jeff Perry (Scandal, Grey's) and Anna Deavere Smith (For the People) join Terry Kinney (Billions) as veteran Manhattan reporters who help Vivian chase down leads. Heck, even Joshua Malina pops up as a porkpie-hat wearing billionaire Anna bullies into writing a check.

So why isn't Inventing Anna any fun? Perhaps because, like Sorokin herself, it's stuffed with stories — some intriguing, some that go nowhere. Early episodes are front-loaded with characters who later disappear, like Nora and her stylish companion, Val (James Cusati-Moyer). A surprising amount of screen time is devoted to Rachel, Neff, and celebrity trainer Kacy Duke (Laverne Cox), and the strain Anna's crimes place on their tenuous friendship. The penultimate episode spends more than an hour imagining what Anna might have been like as a young girl, what may have caused her family to move from Russia to Germany, whether the circumstances of her upbringing could hold the key to her later behavior. And for the love of God, I cannot understand why Rhimes would hire magnificent actors like Terry Kinney, Jeff Perry, and Anna Deveare Smith and then give them nothing to do but lob expository dialogue at each other over cubicle walls.

Garner is very watchable as Anna. She nails Sorokin's air of cocky condescension and sophisticated charm, as well as her … whatever-it-is accent, a sort of nasal drawl with a harsh, Eastern European bite. Chlumsky brings some Amy Brookheimer energy to Vivian, an admittedly obsessive reporter who is determined to crack Anna's code — even if it means becoming another one of the young woman's pawns. Moayed is particularly winning as Todd, a clear-eyed underdog who admires Anna's unflappable ambition. His scenes with Garner in the 82-minute (!) finale, which focuses on Anna's trial, are electric — the few moments Inventing Anna lives up to its promise. The rest of the time, the series feels like one extremely long con. C

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Inventing Anna (TV series)

Netflix's limited series is based on Jessica Pressler's 2018 New York magazine article about Anna Sorokin, who scammed wealthy New Yorkers out of thousands of dollars by claiming to be an heiress.

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