Everyone seems to love a good scam right now. With shows and movies like Netflix’s “Inventing Anna” and “The Tinder Swindler” and Hulu’s “The Dropout,” it seems like audiences are desperate to probe the minds of con artists and gawk at the losses of their victims. Netflix has fed into this craving once again with the documentary “Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives.” From director Chris Smith, who also directed Netflix’s “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened,” “Bad Vegan” shines the spotlight on former famous raw-food chef Sarma Melngailis and her fall from grace. Sarma Melngailis was conned by a man named Anthony Strangis — whom she met on Twitter — into draining almost two million dollars from her restaurant for him. The duo eventually married and ended up going on the run. Once caught, Melngailis was accused of failing to pay employees and defrauding investors.
Viewers get the story from all angles. The docuseries includes interviews with Melngailis’ former employees, family and close friends, as well as an interview with Allen Salkin, the Vanity Fair journalist who wrote about Melngailis’s story back in 2016. The interviews are intercut with actual footage shot by Melngailis and Strangis, and most importantly, an interview with Melngailis herself. You would think that her interview would be more of a “tell-all,” complete with her own personal take on the whole ordeal, but she maintains a completely passive expression and almost monotonous voice throughout. Viewers can barely discern an inkling of her own emotions throughout the interview, which can be chalked up to her feeling apprehensive about reliving the experience, as she tells us outright. But the feeling read as almost out-of-body, like Melngailis was telling someone else’s story.
“Bad Vegan” tells a tale that gets weirder by the minute. Early on, we learn that Melngailis met Strangis under an alias he was using — Shane Fox. When employees of Melngailis’s restaurant, Pure Food & Wine, found out his true name and the fact that he was a convicted felon, they (rightfully) expressed their shock. Melngailis’s reaction? Blasé. Apparently, Fox/Strangis had told her he did work for the CIA and this was totally normal. Right, moving on. As if the identity situation wasn’t already a red flag, viewers are later told that Strangis made a number of promises to Melngailis about a “happily ever after,” including making her and her dog immortal. What was the price of immortality? Almost two million dollars funneled from the restaurant directly into Strangis’s pockets. Once again, in the retelling of her story, Melngailis maintains that deadpan expression and voice.
Melngailis’s interview is what threw the show off-balance. All of the interviewees describe her with roughly the same words: generous, kind, intelligent, etc. Are those the elements that led her to care so much for a man who sucked the money out of her business? Maybe, but Melngailis’s interview definitely does not allude to that. By the end of the far-too-long four-hour ordeal, I actually found myself getting frustrated with her. I was pleading with her, “Just give me something, anything to make me understand how you put up with this guy.” The result of all the interviews is a mixed bag of emotions — you genuinely have no idea what to feel, besides impatience.
One of the few strong points of “Bad Vegan” is the coverage of the media debacle after Melngailis and Strangis were caught. Until Salkin’s Vanity Fair piece, Melngailis was being slandered for being a fraud and interestingly, being a “bad vegan.” Police tracked the pair’s location to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, via an order for a Domino’s pizza and chicken wings that was sent to the hotel. Cries of hypocrisy went up everywhere as the finger was pointed at Melngailis, the vegan chef running a raw-food restaurant. After actually watching “Bad Vegan” and hearing about what really went down (the Domino’s was actually ordered for Strangis), you finally feel sympathy for Melngailis as the show splashes the smearing headlines across the screen.
“Bad Vegan” is a rollercoaster. It goes from normal to odd to straight-up outlandish, and you can’t even fully rely on the main character for a proper explanation. For better or for worse, this show does not tell you what to feel until its final minutes. After the string of these new releases, though, I can say one thing for certain: I’m officially done with scam shows.
Daily Arts Writer Swara Ramaswamy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.