Why we like stories about grifters and their downfall
From “Citizen Kane” through “Dallas” up to “Succession” and “Billions,” watching the super wealthy indulge, scheme and abuse their power has long fascinated audiences.
Now, as if in response to the economic anxieties currently in the air, a new generation of shows about big, bad bosses is emerging. Sure, it’s partly a coincidence of timing that docudrama series charting the rise and recent fall of three start-up unicorns — Hulu’s “The Dropout,” Apple TV+’s “WeCrashed” and Showtime’s “Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber” — arrived this year. Yet they feel very must-see at a time when there are more billionaires than ever (while everyone else wonders how they’ll pay for gas), and the moneyed likes of Elon Musk, Rick Caruso and a former bully-in-chief’s latest power plays are making many uneasy.
It’s darkly serendipitous that we also got Apple TV+’s “Severance” — an existential sci-fi thriller about a family-owned corporation that bullies its employees to the point of confiscating half their memories — at a time when millions of Americans are reassessing their work/life balance.
“We’re fascinated right now with people in power, CEOs and billionaires and entrepreneurs,” “Severance” creator Dan Erickson tells The Envelope. “I think we are having this moment of reckoning with what it means to be a person in extreme power like that, because we’re seeing the ramifications — people being hurt because those in power are not considering their welfare and are more about the bottom line.”
And we kind of love it. There’s vicarious satisfaction in watching “WeCrashed’s” Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway, playing WeWork shared-office-space founder Adam Neumann and his wife, Rebekah, blow boatloads of investor dollars on business and personal real estate. Throughout “The Dropout,” we feel for Elizabeth Holmes’ (Amanda Seyfried) need to succeed as a young woman in the Silicon Valley’s boys club, even as she defrauds everyone who’s interested in her Theranos company’s bogus blood-testing technology. Uber founder Travis Kalanick may be a total jerk as Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays him in “Super Pumped,” and it catches up with him, but he’s still worth billions, and everybody knows his brand.
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Viewers get to join these entrepreneurial Icaruses on their luxurious private jets. They feel the charge of acting out ugly but undeniable power fantasies, such as firing people at will and intimidating the underlings who stay. And when each founder gets squeezed out by more powerful government or venture capital forces — often with the help of very brave and angry whistleblowers — any identification audiences felt is replaced with an absolving sense of sinners getting their just deserts.
“The combination of wish-fulfillment, envy and schadenfreude is part of human nature, and these stories give you that in heaping spoonfuls,” “WeCrashed” co-creator Drew Crevello says.
Whereas “Succession” remains the solid-gold Escalade of this particular genre, the newer shows make its power struggles in a Murdochian empire look kind of Old Media. For example, messiah complexes abound in all three unicorn docudramas; each show’s protagonists emphatically repeat that their business is going to save the world. Meanwhile, “Severance’s” middle managers virtually worship the Lumon Industries’ Eagan dynasty and use that to justify brutalizing their brain-split drones.
“That’s sort of new, right?” notes “Dropout” creator Elizabeth Meriwether. “I was pretty young in the ‘80s, but to me the sense then was greed is good, being rich for rich’s sake and enjoying the spoils of it. What was different about the early 2000s and some of these tech start-ups was this kind of need to not just be rich. It involved a lot of quasi-spiritual, change the world for the better, this is a force of good, almost cultlike companies. They purported to be the good guys, but what we found was that it was often masking a lot of just good old-fashioned greed. In other American boom times, there hasn’t been as much need to put that kind of spiritual mask over it.”
Another very 21st century thing: exploited workers buying into that line of utopian capitalism.
“All of the language, the yoga babble that Rebekah brought to the company that Adam kind of harnessed, it really did become something for these employees,” says Lee Eisenberg, “WeCrashed’s” other showrunner. “They felt so betrayed because they were sold this bill of goods. They joined this thing that had a bit of a cult aspect to it and really felt pride in being part of something bigger than themselves. That’s ultimately how Adam became a billionaire and a lot of people ended up with nothing.”
“One of our writers, Eleanor Burgess, said something in an early conversation about the death of the millennial dream,” Crevello adds. “That really struck Lee and I, how much was bound up in that phrase. For her generation, there really was this belief that you could do good for the world and make a lot of money doing it. Adam Neumann said it word-for-word at Summer Camp [a kind of employee doctrination-party event], and that kind of became his ethos. Not to say that those two goals are mutually exclusive, but sometimes they can be very hard to reconcile.”
Hollywood will try to reconcile with the new business model for the foreseeable future. Anthology series “Super Pumped” is already aiming its second season at Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and soon-departing COO Sheryl Sandberg. “Succession” and “Winning Time” producer Adam McKay, whose filmography is rich in studies of financial malfeasance and power abuse, is working on a movie about Holmes, “Bad Blood,” to star Jennifer Lawrence.
With any luck, though, this latest iteration of money-and-power programming will show some sympathy for those who aren’t getting much of either.
“In no way are we trying to be the Anti-’Succession,’” “Severance’s” Erickson says. “It’s a complementary story. We want to examine this idea of what power means and what it does to people, but from a different perspective, that of the workers. We know that there’s this James Eagan character [in “Severance”] who is this extremely powerful, strange, fascinating, maybe reclusive billionaire — and he’s in the show for what, two scenes? Because we’re telling a story about that, but this one’s from the perspective of the people that it’s affecting.”
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