Netflix’s latest docuseries goes beyond the headlines of Vegan Chef Sarma Melngailis’ arrest to show a more ambiguous picture.
The story of Sarma Melngailis seems tailor-made for tabloid headlines. The former queen of New York’s vegan scene went on the run after embezzling millions of dollars and stiffing employees and investors. A year later she was captured after the police traced an order she made to the emphatically un-vegan Domino’s pizza.
It’s a tale that reaffirmed the idea that vegans are hypocrites, and the press ate it up. But was that the whole story? Was Melngailis really the “Vegan Bernie Madoff”, or the victim of psychological abuse at the hands of her husband, Anthony Strangis? Netflix’s latest docuseries, Bad Vegan, takes a deep dive into Melngailis and Strangis’ crimes and reveals a narrative that is engrossing as it is unbelievable.
It’s no shock that director and executive producer Chris Smith was drawn to the story. As director of Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, Smith is an expert at crafting narratives that go beyond headlines. Bad Vegan is no exception. Smith doesn’t just explore the details of the crime, but how Melngailis got into this mess in the first place.
The picture he paints of Melngailis is one of a woman with business smarts and good intentions, but with no head for relationships. She opened her main restaurant, Pure Food and Wine, with her then-boyfriend Matthew Kenney, but managed to wrest control of the business when the relationship went south. After that breakup, Melngailis was left reeling both emotionally and financially as Kenney’s poor decisions left the restaurant with mountains of debt despite its monumental success.
It was during this time, in the early 2010s, that Melngailis began interacting with a man named Shane Fox over Twitter and Words with Friends. Eventually, they met in person and began a relationship, despite Fox being cagey about his occupation (he vaguely alluded to being in the government) and the fact that his real name was Anthony Strangis. When the pair married, Strangis became inextricably linked with Melngailis’ business.
Smith takes his time easing the viewer into the strangeness of the story and starts by getting them on Melngailis’ side. Countless ex-employees tell of her generosity and caring spirit, calling her “Sarmama”, and even her previous investors fawn over her. Most notable is a friendship she cultivated with Anthony Caruana, a homeless man who became her most ardent defender, even after everything goes sideways.
This humanizing is necessary to keep viewers from seeing Melngailis as nothing but a joke when she begins detailing what Strangis was telling her. It starts as unusual, but not outside the realm of possibility- Strangis is gone a lot because he’s a secret agent with the CIA, he has lots of money but issues with his bank accounts keep him from accessing it, his criminal history was a misunderstanding, etc.
But as Melngailis and Strangis’ relationship deepens, his lies become more bizarre, with him insinuating that he isn’t human and that he can make Melngailis’ dog Leon immortal. Interspersed with these claims are requests for money; money that Melngailis takes from her business. This leads her otherwise profitable ventures to lose money to the point where she can’t even pay her employees.
Smith takes his time escalating the intensity of Melngailis’ downward spiral, but the tale never feels slow, and each episode is perfectly plotted to keep the audience coming back for more.
If we didn’t see Melngailis as an intelligent, caring individual before she met Strangis, it would be easy for us to feel less empathy as she buys his obvious lies. Melngailis’ acceptance is reinforced by stories from Strangis’ other business partners and his ex-wife Stacy Strangis, who had similar experiences with him.
But while it’s Strangis’ claims that make Bad Vegan so fascinating, it focuses on the cash. Smith painstakingly details all the money that Melngailis gave Strangis, as well as the lies that she told investors and employees, while only vaguely alluding to all the weird things Melngailis and Strangis believed. Granted, it’s easier to report on hard numbers than an amorphous blob of lies and gaslighting, but it would have been helpful to have a clearer understanding of the world that the couple lived in.
Likewise, Strangis is never explored as a person. Instead, he is a ghost that floats throughout the story. The most explanation we get of his life outside of Melngailis comes from interviews with Stacy Strangis, his ex. This doesn’t have a huge impact on the series- the vagaries of his identity help build the mystery- but the lack of explanation as to who he really is makes Bad Vegan feel incomplete.
Taking these omissions into account, Bad Vegan remains a compelling story. Smith takes his time escalating the intensity of Melngailis’ downward spiral, but the tale never feels slow, and each episode is perfectly plotted to keep the audience coming back for more. Interviews with Melngails and her friends, family members, and ex-employees offer multiple points of view, and audio and video footage of Melngailis and Strangis’ fights offers a peek into their relationship.
But what makes Bad Vegan worth checking out is its treatment of Melngailis herself. Its initial narrative is firmly on her side, and while it mostly sides with her it doesn’t claim that she’s entirely blameless either. She was fooled, but she also made choices that caused other people to suffer, and at times it feels like she’s more remorseful for being fooled than for the harm she caused. It’s telling that in the end, the only people truly supporting her post-Strangis (her homeless friend Anthony Caruana and Anthony’s ex-wife Stacy) are the only people to whom she never owed money.
Bad Vegan is a discomforting docuseries, not because the content itself is that disturbing, but because it has an ambiguity rarely seen in true crime. Melngailis was a victim of psychological abuse, and while it’s easy for me to judger her for believing such outlandish lies from the comfort of my couch, I can’t say what I would do if I were in her situation. At the same time, her actions led to people being screwed over both financially and emotionally. Whether or not Melngailis should be held culpable for her actions is an uncomfortable question, and Bad Vegan lets viewers stew in their discomfort. It makes the show worth watching.
Bad Vegan arrives on Netflix on September 16th.
Bad Vegan Trailer: