Streaming services, cable TV and Primetime television are fighting for your viewership now more than ever. UnBinged is here to help you weed through it all, with reviews of the latest shows that highlight what we love, what we hate and what we love to hate-watch, too. This week we delve into the wicked world of hustlers, fraudsters, and con artists. From crooked multi-billion dollar tech companies to fake German heiresses, the latest hit shows spotlight modern day mountebanks with snake oil salesmen-level sincerity. As we learned from Icarus, the gods rarely smile on such hubris. Should you? Read our review of The Dropout, Inventing Anna and The Tinder Swindler to fund out.
Netflix’s Inventing Anna is the kinda, sorta true story about a devil in Dior dress who worked her way into New York’s elite with nothing more than hubris and an iPhone. Produced by Shonda Rhimes and starring Julia Garner as Anna Delvey, aka Anna Sorokin, aka “the SoHo Grifter,” the story covers multiple timelines, following Anna’s ascent in New York as well chronicling disgraced journalist Vivian Kent (Anna Chlumsky) a fictionalized take on New York scribe Jessica Pressler, whose story the show is based on.
Despite the interwoven storylines, the tale is pretty straightforward: Anna is a liar and this is how she got caught. The story is riveting, not because of what Anna did, but because of the scope of what she almost achieved. Anna didn’t merely steal a few bucks from gullible friends and wrangle a few free stays in hotels. She got high-powered, highly-respected men of great means to invest in her ideas, earning nearly upwards of $20 million for her efforts.
With her baffling inflection and transformative physical abilities Garner –best known for her Emmy-winning role in Ozark– is hypnotic as Anna. She’s a chameleon and her impressive body of work suggests a massive talent on the rise. But even though she’s great in the role, the series is plagued with the same issues that seems to ail many new Netflix series: too many friggin’ installments. While episodes such as Anna’s escapades in Morocco and the fleecing Alan Reed (Anthony Edwards) are narrative highpoints, the entirety of Inventing Anna could have easily been edited to a manageable 4-6 hours, at the very least.
Ultimately, viewers are left with a captivating story about a Gen-Zer who almost girlbossed her way to the top. The series could have greatly benefited from a tighter narrative, but it’s a fun watch regardless, providing an insider’s look at the modern jet set, where the idea of wealth is more important than the ability to pay an Amex card.
Netflix’s The Tinder Swindler is the tale of an iPhone Romeo who uses apps as traps to find his potential targets. Taking advantage of the modern dating tools, this story of a scam artist is a cautionary tale for any Tinderella looking for love online.
Simon Leviev seemed too good to be true because he was. Handsome, young, and rich beyond measure, he was end game material, at profile-wise. The fact that he claimed to be the heir to billionaire diamond mine owner Lev Leviev was just icing on an already delicious-looking cake. But soon a pattern would appear: he would meet women, wine them, dine them, and earn their trust. But after a few months, he would have credit problems, issues with cash flow, and small dilemmas that required a few thousand dollars to fix. Or a few hundred thousand.
The true crime documentary uses its two-hour run time to quickly lay out the story of Leviev –real name Shimon Hayut– who faked an opulent lifestyle to get women to fund his expensive tastes. Once it is established that Hayut was on the make, director Felicity Morris focuses the doc’s attention on his victims, giving full sympathy to the women he conned and destruction he caused.
The story of this serial fraudster is a refreshing dose of reality among the many miniseries of wannabes and pretenders who come off as charming. There’s nothing charming about Leviev, so it’s nice to just sit back and enjoy a story where the viewers’ sympathies are not being toyed with in an effort to create drama.
Every day we’re dealing with emails and DMs from Nigerian princes and deceased relatives in great need of gift cards. So to watch one such individual who preyed on innocent and trusting souls receive the schadenfreude he so desperately deserves, well, that makes The Tinder Swindler not just a binge, but a delicious rewatch.
Centering on biotech startup Theranos and its creator Elizabeth Holmes, Hulu’s The Dropout is the story of a young entrepreneur who attempted to take the healthcare industry by storm by putting the cart before the horse.
Back in 2014, Theranos was the next big thing in the medical field. Valued at $9 billion, the company claimed to be able to run hundreds of diagnostic tests from a single drop of blood. But it was all lies pushed by company founder Holmes, a figurehead that – thanks to her recent trial – we can call a fraud without any legal repercussions.
Played skillfully by Amanda Seyfried, Holmes is a conundrum. Brilliant, ambitious, and driven, she attempted to create a cult of personality around herself and her company. The Dropout begins with Holmes as a teen, where she is cast as a character of sympathy. Presented with consistently messy hair and ill-fitting clothes along with a ’90s soundtrack that pulls at our nostalgia heartstrings, Seyfried’s wide-eyed deer-in-headlights stare toys with the audience’s affinity to pity the disheveled and downtrodden.
But as the story rolls on, the viewer watches her metamorphosis from visionary to villain. Holmes’s disregard for human life in her pursuit of science, recognition, and billions of dollars is appalling, and witnessing Seyfried’s transformation from eager-to-please student to complete sociopath in a turtleneck is fascinating. Like Disney’s Cruella and Maleficent, this is Hulu’s live-action villain origin story.
Joining Seyfried is Naveen Andrews as Holmes’s partner in crime Sunny Balwani, along with an unrecognizable William H. Macy, Stephen Fry, and Kate Burton, who appears to be doing her darndest to make sure she stars in every con artist bio streaming (she’s also in Inventing Anna).
What makes The Dropout compelling isn’t just the stellar cast, but the fact that Holmes made herself an easy target. There’s a morbid curiosity surrounding her and public interest to watch her fail. Because of her crimes, we want to see her wax wings wane under the heat of the sun. We want to watch her plunge from the sky and we want to hear the splat. Because of her lack of regard for human life, of which she was found guilty in a court of law, we’re given permission to enjoy her misfortune, one episode at a time.