The following contains light spoilers for “Bad Vegan”, but also this was a true story / documentary so most of you probably know the spoilers anyways
I decided to watch Bad Vegan because it’s about two things that I love: scammers and veganism. Although I am neither scammer nor vegan, instead preferring to be honest and vegetarian, there is something about a good fraud scheme that I can’t look away from. When Netflix recommended me this limited series, I clicked.
The essence of Bad Vegan is that it follows the story of Sarma Melngailis. Unlike with Inventing Anna, I didn’t know anything about this story when I started watching, mostly because I was way too young to be reading longform true white collar crime articles at that time. Sarma embezzled 2 million dollars from her workers, a feat which was shocking to everyone considering she owned the most successful raw vegan restaurant in the world. Sarma claims that she was tricked by her husband, Anthony, into believing that there was a secret supernatural world that she needed to pay money to gain entrance to.
She slowly started believing this, and ended up giving him over 1.7 million dollars over multiple years. Sarma herself, along with other people from the Pure Food and Wine restaurant, and lawyers representing Sarma and Anthony, were interviewed for this show. Since it was primarily Sarma’s perspective, we of course cannot be 100% sure of anything, but I’m inclined to believe that everything she said was true purely because she told enough bad with the good, and it never directly conflicted with other people’s stories. I am going to write this review off of the assumption that everything Sarma said is true.
I am unclear if Anthony believed his lies about the supernatural world. At one point, I was inclined to believe that he was developing schizophrenia which propelled him to tell all of these stories, but once I heard about his gambling addiction the truth became more complicated. Was he telling his “truth”, or was he simply lying as a way to get money? Or was it both?
Regardless, it is abundantly clear that Sarma was in a very abusive relationship. The flaw in Netflix’s telling of this story, I think, is that they tried to relate what Sarma went through to being in a cult. While this might be true to some extent, I think the more appropriate and relatable comparison would be to one of an abusive relationship. That’s not to say there aren’t cult similarities– in fact, I think cults are a form of abusive relationship– but I think it in some ways dismissed Sarma’s emotional baggage.
Sarma was unable to leave this relationship (despite in a lot of ways not believing the story and questioning Anthony on his comments) not because she was fully bought into the supernatural world, but because she was gaslit and manipulated into believing that she had no other choice. Anthony cut her off from the world and forced her to be entirely reliant on him all while making her life worse. In my opinion, Netflix didn’t give enough credit to the very grounded reality of abusive relationships, instead choosing to circle back to the “wow ridiculous cult how did she believe this” narrative, even going so far as to show that she was in touch with Anthony post-jail as a way to show that she still believed in him and thus discredit her.
I loved the story and I loved hearing about what Sarma went through, but I do believe it suffered from the opposite problem which Inventing Anna had. In that show, the producers appeared to fully buy in to the Anna Delvey mystique. In Bad Vegan, the show simultaneously told a story from Sarma’s perspective and appeared to cast ridicule upon her at every turn.
It’s not just me who feels that way. Sarma herself called out Netflix for mocking her psychological abuse (I could only find a NY Post article so I’m not linking it here but feel free to search for it) in their telling of the story. It all just felt… not great.
So, would I recommend? Overall the documentary was extremely well produced and I felt that it told an interesting story. I was drawn in the whole time and wanted to know how it ended. I would probably steer away if you are sensitive to domestic abuse or claims of insanity/mental instability, but otherwise I would say it is worth the watch.