Once upon a time, if Hollywood told your life story, it was because you did something inspiring: end British rule in India; writing one of the greatest works of non-fiction of the 20th century; be, like, really good at math.
Now all it takes is to be a big scammer. Or, failing that, blow up your business dramatically while screwing up your investors and employees.
TV is awash with stories of people faking it until they (almost) get it right. In the past two months alone, we’ve had “The Dropout,” a Hulu limited series about disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes; “Super Pumped,” a Showtime drama about the rise of Uber and the fall of its former CEO, Travis Kalanick; “WeCrashed,” for Apple TV+, which tells the story of WeWork and its co-founder Adam Neumann; “Inventing Anna,” a Netflix series produced by Shonda Rhimes about Anna Sorokin, aka Anna Delvey, the con artist who posed as a German heiress and allegedly defrauded some of New York’s most powerful financial institutions; and “The Tinder Swindler,” a Netflix docuseries following an Israeli con artist who robbed women he met online by posing as a diamond tycoon.
The trend has been building for years. (Remember the documentaries competing at the Fyre Festival in 2019?) But it reached what will hopefully be its peak last week with the arrival of “Bad Vegan: Fame.” Fraud. Fugitives. a four-episode Netflix docuseries about Sarma Melngailis, a Wharton graduate who started an upscale raw vegan restaurant and celebrity hotspot in Manhattan but was eventually jailed for stealing from her employees and defrauding investors. Dubbed “the vegan Bernie Madoff” by the tabloid press, Melngailis claimed she was in a coercive relationship with her husband, a serial con man named Anthony Strangis, who said he was a black ops agent and the forced her to give him millions of dollars which he blew on the game while promising to keep his beloved dog alive forever.
As of Monday afternoon, the series sits at No. 3 on Netflix’s top 10, one spot ahead of “Inventing Anna.” (And two behind “Is It Cake?”, a new reality show about a very different kind of deception: a cake made to look like other things.) There’s an obvious and undeniable appeal to stories about a deception. and an equally daring chicanery; it’s a bonus when they involve gullible celebrities, a bit of feel-good woo-woo, and a gorgeous blonde woman, like “Bad Vegan” does. Stories of individual crooks are much easier to digest and tell than examinations of larger systemic injustices. The fall of people like Sorokin, Holmes, or Neumann also gives us reason to believe that there is some responsibility in late-stage capitalism (never mind that Neumann is still worth an estimated $1 billion, thanks to a generous exit program, and is back in the real estate game).
The problem is that Hollywood has turned scam stories into another form of empty IP – fodder to help feed its seemingly insatiable demand for content. Ironically, the thirst for scammer stories has fueled a sort of pyramid scheme of its own, in which streaming services gobble up long-form articles and podcasts and turn them into documentaries and glossy limited series in hope to attract new subscribers, winning prizes. and start the whole process again. It’s probably no surprise that Netflix already has a scripted version of “The Tinder Swindler” in the works.
Sometimes the formula works. “The Dropout” isn’t the first crack in the Theranos saga – we’ve already got John Carreyrou’s bestselling book, a popular ABC News podcast and an Alex Gibney documentary, and we’ll supposedly have a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence one day – but it’s pretty engrossing nonetheless, managing to humanize Holmes (played with wild-eyed commitment by Amanda Seyfried) without letting her off the hook for endangering the lives of people in recklessly and discuss the understandable desire to see a young woman succeed in technology.
But increasingly, these rogue shows are a useless but expensive mess, like so many unsold LuLaRoe leggings stuffed into boxes in a suburban garage. Too many people fail to answer the essential question: why spend four, six, even 10 hours watching the story on TV when you could just read the article it’s based on in 30 minutes?
Despite its unwieldy length, for example, “Inventing Anna” shows little interest in Delvey or what motivates her, spending much of its time focusing on Vivian Kent (Anna Chlumsky), the reporter investigating the crime. ‘story. (She’s based on Jessica Pressler, who wrote a very enjoyable cover story about Delvey for New York magazine.) It plays like an extended, high-end, headline-grabbing episode of “Law & Order,” starring Chlumsky playing the role of detective.
If you watch several of these shows in quick succession, as I did, you’ll begin to connect gamers in an expansive rip-off multiverse, noting that Delvey crashes into a couch belonging to Billy McFarland, the guy behind the disastrous Fyre Festival, and crashes with “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli. You’ll notice that the same character actors appear in supporting roles. (Hello, Anthony Edwards and Kate Burton!) And if you know your celebrity gossip, you might even start connecting the cast of these shows to real-world scandals — like “The Dropout” star William H. Macy, whose wife, Felicity Huffman, spent 11 days in jail for her involvement in the college admissions scandal that turned into — what else? – a Netflix docu-series. Or Anne Hathaway, who plays Neumann’s wife Rebekah on “WeCrashed” and whose ex-boyfriend, Raffaello Follieri, went to jail for defrauding investors by posing as the Vatican’s chief financial officer.
“Bad Vegan” is initially promising, if only because the saga’s details will leave you wondering, “WTF?” At the height of her popularity, Alec Baldwin was a regular at Melngailis’ restaurant, Pure Food and Wine, and would occasionally tweet about going there just to “watch” her. (“He had a bit of a crush on Sarma,” says journalist Allen Salkin, who wrote about the affair for Vanity Fair.) Through the actor’s Twitter feed, Melngailis met Strangis and began a virtual flirtation, which eventually led to an in-person meeting and marriage. (Baldwin eventually met his wife, Hilaria, who perpetrated some sort of hoax by allowing people to believe she was Spanish, at Pure Food and Wine.)
At four hours, however, the series is far too long for a story that goes far – if ultimately unimpressive – to justify its existence in visual form. To flesh out the series, director Chris Smith uses stylized recreations of people with masked faces, endless drone footage of the Manhattan skyline, shots of Melngailis walking his (still-living) dog through the streets of city and grainy screenshots of text messages. . All for a case that can be summed up in one sentence: a seemingly smart young woman gets in over her head financially, falls in love with the wrong guy online, gives him all her money, goes on the run, and gets arrested. at a hotel near Dollywood.
The series offers little psychological information about Melngailis, who remains a cipher by its conclusion. Indeed, Smith may specialize in scams, hoaxes, and fiascos (he did “Fyre,” “Tiger King,” and “Operation Varsity Blues,” about the college admissions scandal), but he seems more interested in the How? ‘Or’ What of these situations that the Why. Smith clearly wants us to have sympathy for Melngailis, for example, who on the show implies, but does not explicitly state, that she was sexually coerced by Strangis. But he doesn’t bother to corroborate those claims or consider what led Melngailis to a relationship with someone who was a walking red flag.
“Bad Vegan” offers hasty comparisons to Patty Hearst and criticizes the media for weaponizing Melngailis’ plant-based lifestyle against her – running, for example, with the deliciously ironic but inaccurate claim that she was arrested because she charged a Domino’s pizza to her credit card. But it doesn’t offer much substance: to invoke a food metaphor, it’s mostly filler, a veritable buffet of pink slime.
Still, I guess an announcement about a scripted version of “Bad Vegan” is imminent. Pure Food and Wine may be closed, but something has to feed the streaming beast.