Netflix has a real thing for con artists at the moment, and the streamer’s latest true-crime documentary lifts the lid on a very specific type of fraudster.
After The Tinder Swindler and lavish drama Inventing Anna centered on crooks extracting wealth by feigning romantic interest and social status, Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives. charts the exploits of a vegan restaurateur and her mysterious husband.
The four-part series reveals how Sarma Melngailis, the owner and founder of New York City’s now-defunct Pure Food and Wine, swindled almost $2 million from unsuspecting employees and investors throughout the noughties with her allegedly manipulative partner, Anthony Strangis.
You can check out the trailer for the new documentary below:
But does Bad Vegan, like The Tinder Swindler before it, rank among the best Netflix documentaries? Online critical reactions suggest so – but audiences aren’t convinced.
Netflix’s latest docuseries currently boasts a 100% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes – based on 13 reviews from publications including Variety, Time and The Wall Street Journal – with commentators describing Bad Vegan as a “meaty tale in four courses.”
But a mere 28% audience score, from 39 user ratings, tells a very different tale.
“This is enough of a story to last one hour, but the filmmakers chose to drag it out for hours […] Avoid this stinker,” one user wrote, while another called Bad Vegan the “perfect example of a car wreck.” Ouch.
In truth, the docuseries’ 100% critical score on Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t mean 100% of critics awarded Bad Vegan full marks in the quality department. When reviewing a new movie or TV show, industry-credited commentators are asked to assign a binary degree of freshness – in this case, all 13 reviewers considered Bad Vegan Fresh, rather than Rotten.
There’s no in-between option for reviewers, which we suspect might have been a more appropriate measure of Bad Vegan’s success. In the aforementioned Variety review, for instance, critic Daniel D’Addario said “the elusiveness of answers about ‘why’ make the docuseries grow, eventually, frustrating.”
The Wall Street Journal’s John Anderson had almost exactly the same criticism: “exactly why it all happened still may seem as cloudy as a quart of kombucha [at the series’ end].”
By most accounts, then, Bad Vegan is not one of the best documentaries on Netflix – which is a shame, considering it comes from director Chris Smith, who executive produced Tiger King and also helmed Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened.
That’s not to say the streamer’s latest factual feature is bad, by any means – unless you’re willing to take the word of NetflixHater_2000 as gospel (that’s a joke).
A fascination with fraud
We opened this article by suggesting Netflix has a particular fancy for fraudsters of late, but the streamer almost always – Inventing Anna notwithstanding – seems to prefer telling these tales through documentaries, rather than full-blown dramatizations.
Other streaming services, though, have been applying the A-list treatment to similar stories, with the rise and fall of startup CEOs proving the TV trend of 2022 so far.
Showtime Anytime, for instance, recently added Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber to its library; a seven-part drama charting the demise of Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Kalanick was ousted from the company in a boardroom coup following allegations of harassment and bullying in 2017.
Disney Plus and Hulu have The Dropout, which stars Amanda Seyfried as disgraced Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes, who was recently convicted of defrauding investors through her company’s phoney medical machines in the early noughties.
Then there’s WeCrashed on Apple TV Plus, an eight-episode skewering of property rental startup WeWork and its CEO, Adam Neumann, whose success came undone when evidence of his hard-partying lifestyle (funded by the company’s dime) came to light.
All of these series, in addition to Netflix’s non-fiction offerings like The Tinder Swindler and Bad Vegan, suggest a growing interest on the part of audiences in seeing once-successful tricksters come undone.
To go a little academic on the matter, schadenfreude is the entertainment flavor of the month – Bad Vegan is simply the latest example.