Is it a mere coincidence that a slew of tv shows and movies about scam artists have come out in just the last few weeks? First ‘Inventing Anna’ and ‘The Tinder Swindler’, then ‘The DropOut’, and now ‘Bad Vegan’. I believe it is more of a sign of our times. People are becoming more susceptible to buying into false narratives, whether it be the rampant fake news in the media or the whole influencer culture. And with the omnipresence of social media, it is getting almost impossible for people to separate truth from lies and information from misinformation. But if there’s one group of people relishing this chaos, it is the scam artists. Strangely, while scammers are certainly despicable, shows and films made on them are more often than not entertaining — and sometimes revealing. ‘Bad Vegan’ exemplifies exactly that.
At the center of Bad Vegan is Sarma Melngailis, a beautiful Ivy League-educated woman. The docuseries follows her unbelievable journey from being an up-and-coming vegan restauranteur in New York City to an on-the-run fugitive. Narrated by Melngailis herself, the series is directed by Chris Smith, the name behind gripping documentaries like ‘The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann’ and ‘Fyre.’ Over the course of four episodes, we also get to hear from family members, friends, and employees of Melngailis.
Like several other Netflix docuseries, Bad Vegan reveals the story layer by layer. At first, we are introduced to Melngailis and her dream of becoming a successful restauranteur. Then, we come to know how meticulous she was in pursuing those dreams. After that, we learn how quickly she became the toast of the town and started appearing on the cover of food magazines. We are also told by her employees how happy they were working for her in her initial glory days. But just when it looked like nothing could stop Melngailis walks in a mysterious man. This man, who we later come to know as Anthony Strangis, claims that a supernatural group called “the family” had blessed him with eternal life and unlimited funds and that he has the powers to make Melngailis’ beloved dog, Leon, immortal. Well, from here on, things become crazier and crazier which ultimately costs Melngailis a sum of $1.6 million and a few months in jail.
By all counts, Bad Vegan checks all the boxes of a fascinating docuseries: an intriguing central subject, unexpected twists, and a head-scratching finale. But the biggest achievement of the docuseries might be how it transcends the boundaries of nonfiction filmmaking. This is the first time I have seen a non-fiction series or film use a filmmaking technique known as “unreliable narrator.” Funnily, there’s almost a Flight Club-like moment (SPOILER: the-Tyler-Durden-doesn’t-exist-moment) in the middle of Bad Vegan. Arguably, even the final few minutes of the docuseries try to convey the idea that you must not believe everything that you just saw and heard. Why? Well, because Sarma Melngailis could be an unreliable narrator.
What is also impressive about ‘Bad Vegan’ is it never tries to glorify the scammer or the scams. Some documentaries try to portray the grifter as a genius. Thankfully, ‘Bad Vegan’ depicts Strangis as cunning and evil, which clearly he is. Though, Melngailis’ portrayal in the show is more complicated. Initially, you might feel sympathetic towards her, but you are not sure about her by the end of the show. Did she get played or is she playing us? This is also why ‘Bad Vegan’ rises above the typical docuseries of this kind — the one that gives you all the answers on a platter. In the end, it raises an important question: do you believe Sarma Melngailis entirely? And by doing so, it makes you question your own gullibility.
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