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'Inventing Anna' showcases Shonda Rhimes' talent for stories about women and power

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Superstar TV writer and producer Shonda Rhimes has created a new series for Netflix. It's called "Inventing Anna," and it tells the story of how a magazine journalist unraveled the real life saga of con artist Anna Sorkin. NPR TV Critic Eric Deggans says it's a creative triumph centered on how hard we all strive to matter.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: One of the first things that greet you in Netflix's "Inventing Anna" is star Julia Garner's bold take on the very specific accent of grifter Anna Sorokin, who posed as a wealthy German heiress named Anna Delvey.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INVENTING ANNA")

JULIA GARNER: (As Anna Sorokin) This whole story, the one you're about to watch like a big lump of nothing, is about me.

DEGGANS: Of course, as the series quickly points out, Sorokin was legendary for a very particular reason, as revealed in this news report.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INVENTING ANNA")

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (As character) The fake heiress allegedly scammed her way through thousands of dollars, gourmet meals, luxury hotel rooms, and private jet flights. Sources say she also conned Manhattan's glitterati, leaving egg on the faces of society's biggest player from the art world, real estate, fashion, and Wall Street.

GARNER: (As Anna Sorokin) That part's all lies, you know.

DEGGANS: That sentiment that Sorokin refuses to admit the fraud charges she was eventually convicted of in real life forms the heart of "Inventing Anna's" compelling, convoluted story. "Inventing Anna" is a fictionalized story based on a real piece in New York Magazine by Jessica Pressler. That's why some things in the Netflix series have different names, including the character inspired by Pressler, who's a journalist named Vivian. "Veep" alum Anna Chlumsky plays Vivian, who has a dark secret hobbling her career, and she sees possible redemption in writing a story on Sorokin for the fictional Manhattan magazine. She pitches the idea to a roomful of middle-aged, white, male editors who are clueless about a saga that could have been ripped from one of the juiciest scripts for Rhimes' long ago hit, "Scandal."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INVENTING ANNA")

ANNA CHLUMSKY: (As Vivian Kent) The indictment reads like a novel - the charges, the arena, the players are insane. We're talking big banks, financial advisors, all of Fashion Week, and half of New York Society, and she's 26 years old. I couldn't take my own shoes at 26. Let me do this.

ARMAND SCHULTZ: (As Landon Bloom) Paul assigns your stories.

DEGGANS: "Inventing Anna" is the first series Rhimes has created for Netflix. She's an executive producer on the streamer's hit "Bridgerton," but she didn't create it. This series proves the perfect showcase for Rhimes' talent in creating women-centered stories about money, power, privilege, and male oppression. In one telling scene, Vivian, who is quite pregnant, reacts to an ultrasound with a string of F-bombs, offering this explanation to her perplexed husband.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INVENTING ANNA")

CHLUMSKY: (As Vivian Kent) I thought I was going to have it fixed - my reputation - before there was a tiny person I'm required to keep alive and pay attention to. I've run out of time. And if you tell me my joy at having a daughter is supposed to make up for the loss of my career, the loss of the thing that lights up my brain, I swear to God I will smother you in your sleep.

DEGGANS: In the series, Rhimes not only explores the often carelessly decadent lifestyles of the super rich, she reveals how being the right color, with the right accent, the right clothes, and the right sales pitch can get you pretty close to a fortune. That's subtext is what elevates "Inventing Anna" above some other TV shows in the fall of major con artists emphasizing how the con only works if it's based on something the victims already believe. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.