There was Peak TV, and now there’s 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 premiere (Apple TV+’s “WeCrashed”), we seem to be in a bubble of prestige TV shows all about startups. Like the tech startup bubble itself, it feels as if it might burst.
On paper, it makes sense why seemingly every big investigative story, podcast or book about an infamous tech company from the last few years gets snatched up for TV rights. The dramatic elements are right there. There’s a spectacular rise and fall and a provocative and abrasive leader as the protagonist. The story is often a snapshot of a particular cultural moment and a microcosm of larger, more insidious problems. And yes, there’s something captivating and maybe a bit seductive about these cautionary tales, even when the abuses and misdeeds of these companies and their founders are readily apparent. Get some 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 based on the companies and their founders: Elizabeth Holmes and fraudulent blood-testing startup Theranos, Travis Kalanick and ride-share behemoth Uber, and Adam and Rebekah Neumann, the woo-woo, cultish couple behind WeWork. But there’s a formula to them: the ascent to tech superstardom (often with warning signs), problems that emerge from those warning signs (uncontrolled growth and spending, a flimsy business model, racism and sexism at the company, widespread 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 any of this.
These prestige TV retellings are starting to feel formulaic too, despite all of their money and creative talent. “The Dropout,” based on a thorough ABC News podcast and starring a mesmerizing Amanda Seyfried as Holmes, might be the best of the bunch. But it’s hard to say. It’s unfortunate they’re all coming out around the same time. Watching each show individually, it might have been easier to discern what specifically makes them work or not. But watching them simultaneously, they quickly become interchangeable and blur together into an endless loop of prestige TV. With their proliferation also comes an emptiness: Thematically, they’re not adding anything we didn’t already know about these companies, these founders, their abuses of power and the culture that enabled them.
On “Super Pumped,” the show’s stylistic flourishes, like smash cuts, fourth-wall breaks, video game-esque graphics and a voice-over from Quentin Tarantino, capture the world of the show and Kalanick’s brashness and recklessness. But the more these pile up, the more they become shiny distractions and tacky annoyances. Some of the performances make the show worth it, particularly Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Kalanick, and Kyle Chandler as investor and board member Bill Gurley, who is trying to rein in Kalanick as the company faces mounting financial and ethical scandals. Those creating the show probably could have used a figure like him to keep the series grounded, instead of it becoming an empty spectacle.
“WeCrashed” also veers into over-the-top territory. At first, it makes sense. Jared Leto (giving a very Jared Leto performance) stars as WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann, whose excesses and outsize persona turned the co-working startup into a cult-like environment. The show depicts how the company showered employees with morale-boosting perks — when, in fact, what would really help employees’ morale would be getting paid enough and not being exploited. It’s eerily familiar to anyone who has ever worked at any kind of startup (looking at you, fellow digital media employees).
Neumann’s wife Rebekah (Anne Hathaway) ― a sometimes actor, sometimes yoga instructor (and a cousin of Gwyneth Paltrow) ― injected her wellness influencer vibes into the company’s philosophy. (In one scene in the show, which did happen in real life, she asks HR to “offboard” an employee for “bad energy.”) Over the course of the show’s eight episodes, the two characters become increasingly insufferable to watch — which is part of the point. But in the absence of any other substantial elements or new insights about the well-documented toxic culture of startups, it leaves the show feeling soulless.
By contrast, “The Dropout” takes a mostly serious tone and sticks to what happened, without any superfluous bells and whistles. But for viewers already familiar with the story — as I was, having listened to the podcast on which the show is based — they already know how this tale unfolds and what Holmes’ and Theranos’ rise and fall says about the unchecked culture of Silicon Valley. Retelling it in a new medium, even when done well, doesn’t really reveal anything we didn’t already know.
And yet, I kept watching all of these shows. I methodically plowed through each episode, to the point where I sometimes couldn’t keep track of each show anymore. It’s puzzling. I’ve seen these series referred to as “schadenfreude shows,” that there’s an appeal to watching rich people fail. But here, I didn’t feel any schadenfreude. If I felt anything at all, it was a sense of disgust and disillusionment with the world of startups. Does every startup falsely sell employees on the fanciful notion that the company is their family? Is every startup founder an asshole or a fraud? Can an ethical startup exist? Or does that not make for good television? After all, a show about a business where employees are treated fairly and not working in a toxic environment probably would not have a lot of dramatic stakes.
This bubble of Peak Prestige TV About Startups keeps expanding. Showtime has already renewed “Super Pumped,” intending for it to be an anthology series about a different company each season. Season 2 will take on another ubiquitous subject: Facebook. HBO also has a Facebook limited series in development: “Doomsday Machine,” starring Claire Foy as Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. And there’s another dramatization of the Theranos saga in the works: a movie based on former Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou’s book “Bad Blood,” directed by Adam McKay and starring Jennifer Lawrence. Many of these stories have already been told in documentary or docuseries form.
Hollywood is always chasing more IP to fuel more content, so it’s logical to seize on anything that’s an abundant well. But that doesn’t mean every one of these startup cautionary tales that works on paper then has to be regurgitated on screen. The employees at these startups want pay equity and a safe work environment, not free kombucha and stock options. Similarly, these shows need to contain some substance, not just dangle shiny objects.