There was Peak TV, and now there is Peak Prestige TV About Startups. With a trio of fact-based shows about fraudulent, corrupt, or toxic tech startups currently airing (“Hulu’s The Dropout” and Showtime’s “Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber”) or about to air ( Apple TV+’s “WeCrashed”), we seem to be in a bubble of high-profile startup TV shows. Like the tech startup bubble itself, it feels like it could burst.
On paper, it makes sense that seemingly every major investigative story, podcast, or book about an infamous tech company in recent years is being ripped off for the TV rights. The dramatic elements are there. There’s a dramatic rise and fall and a defiant, abrasive leader as the protagonist. History is often a snapshot of a particular cultural moment and a microcosm of larger, more insidious issues. And yes, there is something captivating and perhaps a little seductive about these cautionary tales, even when the abuses and misdeeds of these companies and their founders are evident. Get big stars, veteran TV creators, and a premium cable network or streaming service on board and – boom – turn it into a limited series.
The details of each story vary depending on the companies and their founders: Elizabeth Holmes and fraudulent blood-testing startup Theranos, Travis Kalanick and ride-hailing giant Uber, and Adam and Rebekah Neumann, the cult couple behind WeWork. But there is a formula for them: the rise to tech superstardom (often with warning signs), the problems that emerge from those warning signs (uncontrolled growth and spending, a fragile economic model, racism and sexism in the company, general disarray), and then the downfall (usually brought on by investigative reporting, lawsuits, and/or whistleblowers). The founders are always white, because if they weren’t, they wouldn’t get away with it.
These prestige TV narratives are also starting to feel stereotypical, despite all their money and creative flair. “The Dropout,” based on an in-depth ABC News podcast and featuring a riveting Amanda Seyfried as Holmes, might be the best of the bunch. But it’s hard to say. Too bad they all come out at the same time. Looking at each show individually, it might have been easier to discern what makes them work or not. But watching them simultaneously, they quickly become interchangeable and merge into an endless loop of prestige television. With their proliferation also comes a void: thematically, they add nothing that we don’t already know about these companies, these founders, their abuses of power, and the culture that made them possible.
On “Super Pumped,” the show’s stylistic flourishes, like smashing cuts, fourth-wall breaks, video game graphics and a Quentin Tarantino voiceover, capture the show’s world and the brashness and Kalanick’s carelessness. But the more these accumulate, the more they become shiny distractions and sticky annoyances. Some of the performances are worth it, especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Kalanick and Kyle Chandler as investor and board member Bill Gurley, who tries to rein in Kalanick as the company faces setbacks. growing financial and ethical scandals. Whoever created the show could probably have used a figure like him to keep the show grounded, instead of it becoming an empty show.
“WeCrashed” also veers into over-the-top territory. At first, that makes sense. Jared Leto (giving a very Jared Leto performance) stars as WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann, whose excesses and oversized personality have turned the coworking startup into a cult-like environment. The show shows how the company showered employees with perks to boost morale – when in fact what would really help employee morale would be to get paid enough and not be taken advantage of. It’s oddly familiar to anyone who’s ever worked in any type of startup (looking at you, fellow digital media employees).
Neumann’s wife, Rebekah (Anne Hathaway) ― sometimes an actress, sometimes a yoga instructor (and cousin of Gwyneth Paltrow) ― has injected her wellness influencer vibes into the company’s ethos. (In a scene from the show, what happened in real life, she asks HR to “land” an employee for “bad energy”.) Over the course of the show’s eight episodes, the two characters become increasingly unbearable to watch — which is part of the point. But in the absence of other substantial elements or new insights into the well-documented toxic culture of startups, it leaves the show soulless.
In contrast, “The Dropout” takes a rather serious tone and sticks to what happened, without superfluous bells and whistles. But for viewers already familiar with the story – like me, after listening to the podcast the show is based on – they already know how this story unfolds and what the rise and fall of Holmes and Theranos says about the unchecked culture of Silicon Valley. Telling it in a new medium, however well done, doesn’t really reveal anything we didn’t already know.
And yet, I continued to watch all these shows. I methodically went through each episode, to the point where I sometimes couldn’t keep up with each show. It’s confusing. I’ve seen these shows called “schadenfreude shows”, that there’s a call to watch the rich fail. But here I felt no schadenfreude. If I felt anything, it was a sense of disgust and disillusionment with the startup world. Does every startup wrongly sell employees on the fanciful notion that the company is their family? Is every startup founder an asshole or a crook? Can an ethical startup exist? Or doesn’t that make good TV? After all, a show about a company where employees are treated fairly and don’t work in a toxic environment probably wouldn’t have a lot of dramatic stakes.
This Peak Prestige TV About Startups bubble just keeps getting bigger. Showtime has already renewed “Super Pumped,” intending to make it an anthology series about a different company each season. Season 2 will tackle another ubiquitous topic: Facebook. HBO also has a Facebook limited series in development: “Doomsday Machine”, starring Claire Foy as COO Sheryl Sandberg. And there’s another dramatization of the Theranos saga in the works: a movie based on the book “Bad Blood” by former Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou. directed by Adam McKay and starring Jennifer Lawrence. Many of these stories have already been told as documentaries or docuseries.
Hollywood is always on the hunt for more IP to power more content, so it makes sense to grab anything from an abundant well. But that doesn’t mean that every one of those startup cautionary tales that works on paper then has to be regurgitated on screen. The employees of these startups want pay equity and a safe work environment, not free kombucha and stock options. Likewise, these shows must contain some substance, not just dangling shiny objects.