The biggest scam in ‘Inventing Anna’ might be its depiction of journalism

A woman in a grey coat with a large bag over her shoulder
Anna Chlumsky as journalist Vivian Kent in “Inventing Anna.”
(Nicole Rivelli/Netflix)

This is the Los Angeles Times newsletter about all things TV and streaming movies. This week, we revisit work by the late Ivan Reitman, look at the journalism in “Inventing Anna” and get viewing recommendations from Jeffrey Wright. Scroll down!

Welcome to Screen Gab, the newsletter for everyone who has a few questions about magazine publishing after watching “Inventing Anna.”

Shonda Rhimes’ Netflix series, which TV critic Lorraine Ali calls formulaic and overlong despite the brazen scammer of its title, is based on New York magazine journalist Jessica Pressler’s 2018 story about Anna Delvey, a Russian woman, actually named Anna Sorokin, who posed as a German heiress and squeezed millions out of the New York elite. But once they made peace with Delvey’s wonky accent, ably mimicked by Emmy-winner Julia Garner, many viewers — especially members of the media — found themselves captivated by “Inventing Anna’s” real center of gravity: Vivian Kent.


Or maybe not Kent so much as her milieu. Played by Anna Chlumsky (“Veep’s” Amy Brookheimer), the series’ Pressler stand-in, pregnant and reeling from professional disgrace, is dogged in the extreme — at one point, she nails down a key source as her water breaks — but it’s her colleagues in “Scriberia” who steal the show, and help her bring home her socialite whale.

Apparently a real place in the New York magazine offices, this corner warren for newsroom curmudgeons (played by Anna Deavere Smith, Terry Kinney and Jeff Perry) emerges as the wryly funny dream team behind Kent’s blockbuster scoop — or, if you’re in an uncharitable mood, the magical helpers of a Disney-esque fantasy. Under the watchful eye of a jerk editor (Tim Guinee) and the utterly aloof eye of another, more powerful editor (Armand Schultz), the Scriberia quartet manages to produce a many-thousand-word cover story in seven episodes flat. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, eat your hearts out!

It’s a fool’s errand to fact-check a confidence game, but “Inventing Anna” plays fast and loose with more aspects of professional journalism that mere staffing. Some of its exaggerations fall under the category of “convenient archetype,” like the screaming editor, the recalcitrant writer, the clueless assistant. (Executive assistants know more than anyone else in the newsroom.) Some are commonplaces of the journalism drama that “Inventing Anna” fails to pursue in a satisfying way: Though the final episodes toy with the notion that Kent has grown so close to her subject that she too has been conned, by this point in the series the viewer is too drained to scrutinize the sloppy ethics.

Most screen depictions of journalism rely on (a lot of) dramatic license. It’s not a glamorous job! And too many, depicting female reporters sleeping with sources to get ahead, are far worse than this. But for a series that actively chooses to foreground Kent, her outlet, her colleagues and the reporting process, “Inventing Anna” is remarkably sloppy in its own right.

As for Scriberia? At press time, Screen Gab has been unable to confirm which New York staffer, if any, corresponds to each “Inventing Anna” character. But like Vivian Kent, we’re open to tips.



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A cartoon apple dressed like a dog, and a cartoon onion dressed like a pig
An image from Cartoon Network’s “Apple & Onion,” streaming on HBO Max.

Recently terminated by Cartoon Network but now available in its 76-episode entirety on HBO Max (including some installments yet unseen), the brilliant and original “Apple & Onion” is set in a cosmopolitan world — something like New York City — populated by anthropomorphic items of food, from the fresh produce of the title to Burger, Cotton Candy, Falafel and Chicken Nugget, a cop. (They eat food too, though not food with faces.) Rendered in assertive lines with compass-and-protractor backgrounds, the series is absolutely child-friendly but, like the best cartoons, employs sophisticated language and oddball ideas. Richard Ayoade, a stalwart of British millennial comedy (best known here for “The IT Crowd”), plays Onion, the practical one, and series creator George Gendi, also British, is Apple, the idiot, who share a room atop a skyscraper accessible only by fire escape. It’s tonally more reminiscent of “Flight of the Conchords” than to any other buddy cartoon show, including its childish leads, and as on “Flight” there are songs, with a retro emphasis on reggae, jungle drums and bass, old-school hip-hop and, to my ear, early ‘80s British postpunk. Paul Scheer, Nicole Byer and Eugene Mirman are among the first-rate voice cast. —Robert Lloyd

Homicide detectives recount in vivid detail the extreme measures they took to track and capture the globe’s most notorious serial killers in Netflix’s docuseries “Catching Killers.” The Green River Killer, Aileen Wuornos, BTK and the Happy Face Killer are among the subjects covered in this two-season, eight-episode collection of captivating stories told by the investigators at the forefront of solving the cases. There’s no narration or outside talking heads here, just the compelling words of the women and men who worked gruesome crime scenes, pored over hundreds of clues, risked their lives giving chase and suffered emotionally after interrogating sociopaths, sadists and cannibals. Their frank and humanizing testimonials, paired with archival police and news footage from the cases, illustrate the momentous effort that went into cracking some of the most egregious serial homicides in modern memory. —Lorraine Ali

Catch up

Everything you need to know about the film or TV series everyone’s talking about

A man sitting in a chair gestures with his hand in a black and white photo
Slovak-Canadian film producer and director Ivan Reitman in 1984.
(Hilaria McCarthy / Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images/Wibbitz)

Ivan Reitman, who died Saturday night at age 75, may always be best remembered for “Ghostbusters.” But his legacy includes not just the many other popular comedies he directed (“Stripes,” “Twins,” “Junior,” the list goes on), but also an extensive producing career that includes movies as different as “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” David Cronenberg’s “Shivers,” Atom Egoyan’s “Chloe,” the Howard Stern vehicle “Private Parts” and both “Space Jam” movies. He encompasses multitudes, in other words, and his body of work, while as erratic as you’d expect from anyone with his industry longevity, also boasts a range and an aversion to self-repetition — ongoing “Ghostbusters” reboots aside — that shouldn’t be underestimated.

Nor should his touch with actors. While Bill Murray likely would have stumbled onto movie stardom one way or another, there’s little denying the boost he got from Reitman, starting with the director’s 1979 feature debut, “Meatballs” (multiple platforms), an amiably shaggy summer-camp comedy in which Murray’s gift for nonstop wisecrackery gets a tremendous early workout. Reitman may have faced a more uphill battle making a comedy star out of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but of their multiple collaborations, my favorite remains 1990’s “Kindergarten Cop” (multiple platforms), with its incongruous and weirdly irresistible mash-up of rambunctious kiddie comedy and violent drug-dealer shenanigans.


Even Reitman’s lesser-sung later movies have their performance-based pleasures, whether it’s Kevin Costner’s perfectly judged turn as an NFL mover and shaker in 2014’s “Draft Day” (multiple platforms) or Harrison Ford and Anne Heche’s pleasurable byplay in the 1998 romantic caper “Six Days Seven Nights” (multiple platforms). But my own list of undersung Reitman favorites pretty much begins and ends with “Dave” (multiple platforms), his 1993 comedy starring Kevin Kline as a man hired to impersonate the president of the United States. A warm Capra-esque charmer that benefits from a smooth script by Gary Ross and a sterling co-lead turn from “Ghostbusters” veteran Sigourney Weaver, the movie, like so much of Reitman’s work, feels the product of a happier, less cynical age. — Justin Chang

Guest spot

A weekly chat with actors, writers, directors and more about what they’re working on — and what they’re watching

A sketch of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass in an office at the White House
Abraham Lincoln (voiced by Bill Camp) and Frederick Douglass (voiced by Leslie Odom Jr.) in “Lincoln’s Dilemma.”

With “Lincoln’s Dilemma,” a four-part docuseries about President Abraham Lincoln’s evolving stance on slavery in the United States, Apple TV+ offers the first in a slew of projects about 19th century America to arrive on TV in the coming days — and that’s not even counting a new episode of “The Gilded Age.” Look out for “Abraham Lincoln” (History), based on Lincoln biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Leadership: In Turbulent Times”; “Black Patriots: Heroes of the Civil War” (History), executive produced by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; and “Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches” (HBO), based on David Blight’s life of the escaped slave-turned-abolitionist leader.

Screen Gab caught up with Jeffrey Wright, who narrates “Lincoln’s Dilemma” and performs one of the speeches in “Frederick Douglass,” about what he’s watching — and what his recent immersion in history taught him about his hometown of Washington, D.C. —Matt Brennan

What film or TV series have you watched recently that you have been recommending to everyone? Why?

I have to admit, I don’t tend to watch a lot of TV. There is a series I’ve been watching lately, almost on a loop, but it’s nothing new. It’s a documentary series called “Connections” that first came out in the late ’70s, which I used to love back then, and I’ve kind of revisited it. It’s hosted by [science historian] James Burke, and he walks the audience through innovations in technology and weaves the history together in a way that I find really compelling. It’s almost like a detective story.

What’s your go-to film/TV comfort food — something you rewatch again and again?


One that comes to mind as I sit here in Brooklyn is Spike Lee’s “Crooklyn.” There’s a warmth about that film that I find really wonderful. It’s filmed here in Brooklyn, maybe in a house not too dissimilar from my house. There’s a point at which the young girl [Troy, the protagonist, played by Zelda Harris] goes down to Virginia to visit relatives for the summer, which was something that I did as a kid — my family as well was from rural Virginia. That’s a film that when it’s on, I’ll always take in, or pull up sometime and share with my kids.

What did you learn about Abraham Lincoln from working on “Lincoln’s Dilemma” that surprised you?

What was made clear to me in working on this was the almost methodical evolution that Lincoln underwent during his presidency. He didn’t begin as an abolitionist. He didn’t end his presidency as an abolitionist. Lincoln was antislavery — to an extent. He was for slavery in the South so long as it didn’t expand to new territories, if that would preserve the Union. He only became pro-emancipation later in his presidency. As Frederick Douglass liked to say, [Lincoln] was serving the interests of the Union and the interests of white people in America primarily.

You are from Washington, D.C. How did this project reshape, or perhaps reaffirm, your understanding of the city and what makes it distinctive?

It only enhances my appreciation for the city, for the history of the city. ... Opposite the Lincoln Memorial is another memorial that’s not so well known, and that’s the memorial to Ulysses S. Grant. Grant is on horseback, on high, looking across the Mall toward Lincoln, seated in the memorial there — both of these imperfect men etched in marble and stone, staring at one another. And these are the two men that preserved this country. It’s such incredibly powerful symbolism. And it’s right in the heart of Washington. Having dug down a bit more into Lincoln’s history, I think the next time I go to D.C. and look at those two men, it will enhance the appreciation of those two men and what they did.

If you go back to [the insurrection of] Jan. 6, there was someone who climbed onto the Grant memorial — one part of it, there’s a cavalry scene. And he climbed on one of the horses and raised the Confederate flag. I don’t know if there’s anything that can more desecrate that memorial, or desecrate the history of our country, than an act like that.


What’s next

The TV shows and streaming movies to keep an eye on in the coming week

A woman leans toward a microphone in a smoky nightclub in 1960
Rachel Brosnahan as Midge Maisel in Season 4 of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
(Amazon Studios)

Fri., Feb. 18

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Amazon Prime Video): Now in its fourth season, this Emmy winner about a trailblazing stand-up comedian (Rachel Brosnahan) moves into “Mad Men” territory (1960) and picks up an eye-popping array of guests: “Gilmore Girls” alums Kelly Bishop and Milo Ventimiglia, plus Jason Alexander, John Waters and more.

“Severance” (Apple TV+): Despite big-name talent (Adam Scott, Patricia Arquette, Ben Stiller) and an intriguing premise (in which the characters’ work selves are wholly “severed” from the rest of their lives), TV critic Robert Lloyd writes that this series has so many ideas — and possibly genres — that none quite sticks.

“Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (Netflix): Another entry in one of horror’s most renowned franchises, this one streaming, starring Elsie Fisher (“Eighth Grade”) and a sequel to the 1974 film that started it all.


Sun., Feb. 20

“From” (Epix): One of our most anticipated TV shows of the year, “From” finds Harold Perrineau (“Lost”) and his vacationing family trapped in a town in Middle America. Not a comedy!

Mon., Feb. 21

“The Endgame” (NBC): “Homeland” vet Morena Baccarin stars as a wily international arms dealer — what other kind is there? — in this heist thriller

Tues., Feb. 22

“Cat Burglar” (Netflix): An animated “Bandersnatch” from the “BoJack Horseman” family tree. If you know what that sentence means without looking up any of the words, this one’s for you.


“Race: Bubba Wallace” (Netflix): A successful Black driver and outspoken advocate for racial justice in a sport where the Confederate flag has traditionally been an important symbol, the NASCAR star receives the Netflix docuseries treatment. (The bar is high after last year’s illuminating “Naomi Osaka.”)

Wed., Feb. 23

“The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder” (Disney+): An important landmark for representation in animation when it premiered in 2001, “The Proud Family” returns for a nostalgic revival. (Cartoon magic means heroine Penny Proud is still a teenager, even if fans of the original are decidedly not.)

“Snowfall” (FX): The perennially under-the-radar drama, starring Damson Idris as the young leader of an L.A. crime syndicate in the age of crack cocaine, returns for its fifth season.

Thurs., Feb. 24

“Law & Order” (NBC): The grandaddy of ‘em all rises from the dead — Sam Waterston in tow — for its 21st season, more than a decade after its 20th.