The truly bonkers tale of high-end restaurateur Sarma Melngailis’ downfall is the subject of Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives, a four-part Netflix docuseries from Chris Smith, the director behind such schadenfreude-driven nonfiction hits as Tiger King and Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened.
On the face of it another in the line of true crime cons such as Inventing Anna, Trust No One: The Hunt for the Crypto King, and Tinder Swindler, the story is so bizarre that it feels almost made for Netflix.
To recap: Manhattan’s “hottest vegan” takes off with her husband, Anthony Strangis, and a huge pile of money stolen from her employees, who are left empty-handed. She’s only taken down when she orders, of all things, a Domino’s pizza to the Tennessee hotel room where they’ve been hiding out.
Producer Ryann Fraser and director Smith say they didn’t realize what had they had until they interviewed Melngailis (who pleaded guilty to grand larceny, tax fraud and conspiring to defraud in 2019 and spent four months in prison) over eight hours.
“I don’t think I even met Sarma until we were sitting across from each other in the interview,” Smith told Steve Greene at IndieWire. “That was the main interview that you see in the series. I try not to pre-interview people. When people do an interview, and they’re telling you something for the first time, I feel like that’s something that can’t be recaptured.”
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This confirmed to the filmmakers some of the more salacious headlines from previous print articles: namely about the relationship between Melngailis and Strangis, a Jonestown-esque cult leader who, it is implied, as good as brainwashed her into stealing the money on the promise, incredibly, that he was an immortal being who could bestow the gift of eternal life on both Melngailis and her pet dog.
Though Strangis never appears on camera, his words and actions are represented throughout Bad Vegan. Melngailis’ recorded phone calls — including one on camera that opens the series — give a literal voice to his behavior over the course of his time around Melngailis and her various business ventures.
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“He is either delusional or the world’s biggest liar, or both,” Alissa Wilkinson writes at Vox.
“My goal with projects is never to try to tell the audience what to think,” Smith said to Addie Morfoot in an interview for Variety. “This project is very much like a Rorschach test. I feel like different people see it in different ways and they come away with different conclusions.”
READ MORE: ‘Bad Vegan’ Director Chris Smith on How the Chef Who Stole Millions Became Netflix’s Latest True Crime Star (Variety)
It is this ambivalence about the central characters and their true motivations that make this series stand out from other scammer stories.
“After four hours of the show — listening to Melngailis explain her story, seemingly as a reliable narrator — the series takes a turn, and spends its last 10 minutes casting doubt on the whole thing,” Wilkinson recounts. “Is the tale we were just told the full truth? Or have we, too, been a little bit scammed?”
The wave of stories like these — WeCrashed, Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, The Dropout and others — share a very familiar story, “often looking for the reasons the fraud or con or cult succeeded in the first place. People wanted to belong. They were suckered by privilege. They wanted money. They want independence or direction or power.”
Wilkinson goes further in attempting to explain why audiences are flocking to them too. It’s surely more than the willingness to watch other human beings in a slow-motion car wreck and the selfish delight we get in a “there but for the grace of God, go I” kind of way.
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Wilkinson concludes that the series is less interested in the schadenfreude and more fascinated by the whys. Why would someone accomplished, beautiful, and successful like Melngailis be taken in by such a seemingly obvious grifter? Why, when the bloom had rubbed off, would she stay with this abusive man? What does it mean that she’s willing to talk with a documentarian working for Netflix about it now?
Judy Berman at Time agrees that there’s something more profound going on behind the clickbait title, although Bad Vegan only begins to say so.
“Melngailis’ ordeal, if you choose to believe her version of the events, speaks to the whole constellation of bizarre, fact-free ideologies currently flooding the public square. Anti-vax. QAnon. Pizzagate. Election fraud. A classic: the Illuminati.”
Her belief in alternative facts, misinformation and conspiracy theories, are perhaps to her mind a shield from unpopular reality.
“The same brand of anti-establishment skepticism that draws a person like Melngailis to wellness culture can also leave them vulnerable to false gurus and dangerously wacky ideas.”
Vanity Fair journalist Allen Salkin even likens Melngailis to Patty Hearst, raising the specter of Stockholm syndrome.
For instance, she has apparently paid back the $63,000 owed to former employers from her fee for appearing in the documentary, and Salkin verified this.
Another point Melngailis wants to make: “The impression in the doc is I intentionally married Anthony so he could transfer me money. That is completely not the case. At some point, Anthony did some of his mindfuckery and got me to marry him.”
She also still has Leon, the rescue dog who Strangis promised immortality. According to Salkin, “Melngailis has now completely accepted that neither Leon nor she will be made immortal by Strangis or anyone else — but it would be nice if he kept going as long as possible. She’s doing what she can.”
“Based on his estimated birthday, he just turned 12, which usually surprises people because he can act much younger,” she says. “I’ve posted in the past details about what I feed him on his/my Instagram.”
She says she not going to start over in the restaurant business nor ask anyone for money ever again. “I need to crawl out from under debt. Some days I’m inspired and fired up to get shit done. Other days I’m exhausted and feel unable to handle anything. So I don’t know. Maybe I’ll just hide away with Leon and write books. Or fly to the borders of Ukraine and help make Molotov cocktails. Something useful.”