Why do we believe obvious lies? Sometimes, as these shows suggest, the reasons are simple: greed, desire. And sometimes we believe liars because we like the story they’re selling us about ourselves. In a telling scene of “The Dropout,” Elizabeth (Amanda Seyfried) approaches the investor Don Lucas, who’s wearing a cowboy hat the size of a satellite dish. “This is America,” she tells him. “We’re cowboys, right?” The real-life Mr. Lucas not only invested; I have joined Theranos’s board. She’s speaking his language from him and using it to assure him that he is who he wants to be.
In “Inventing Anna,” Anna (Julia Garner) chides Henrick Knight (Joshua Malina) for not immediately investing in her boyfriend’s questionable start-up. Does he want to be like her father de ella, she demands — old, out of touch? Doesn’t he want to get in on the ground floor and leave a shining legacy as he draws inevitably nearer to death? He agrees to invest.
These confidence artists can hook us because they can read us and they know how to make us feel smart and successful. It’s an effect that plays out in larger-scale societal grifts, too. Just as Anna’s targets feel flattered, gratified to be clever enough to see the opportunity she’s offering, those who buy into conspiracy theories such as QAnon revel in being the ones smart enough to see past the lies of a world where things are not as they appear . Skin care gurus and Instagram influencers make their fans feel seen and appreciated, even as they rake in endorsement money. And the owners of much-hyped digital apes and penguins gloat about being a part of the club, even though the NFTs they have shelled out for may turn out to be worthless.
We’d all like to think we would have swiped left on the Tinder swindler and spotted the flaws in Elizabeth Holmes’s spiel. These shows are set up to make us feel superior, to yell at the screen, “How could you be so dumb?” It’s intensely, guiltily satisfying to watch the scam play out, if we can reassure ourselves that in the same circumstance, we wouldn’t fall for that presentation or for that request for cash. We would know better.
But I didn’t. They didn’t. Maybe you wouldn’t, either.
In some of these TV portrayals, the huckster is knowing and coldhearted, on the lookout for a sucker with weaknesses to exploit. Mr. Hayut is shown cajoling women into handing over thousands of dollars, then discarding them so he could live a life of luxury. (He has accused the filmmakers of spreading lies.) But Elizabeth Holmes and Anna Sorokin come across as less malicious, more blinded by their own ambition and vanity. They seem to believe their own stories or at least believe they are telling a truth that just isn’t true yet. They reminded me more of my mother, whose crippling fear of being left alone drove her to do anything, say anything, to keep those she loved close.
As I watched the fictional Anna deliver a stirring speech to a powerful lawyer, convincing him that she was destined for success, despite her lack of knowledge or funding, I recognized her mesmerizing tone, and I clapped my hands over my face, humiliated. My mother used that tone every time she needed me to swallow some absolutely implausible lie about her past de ella. She had convinced herself it was true, and I believed her.