US small-screen series explore the drama of startups
As the founders of massive startups like Theranos, WeWork and Uber fall from grace, their failures have proven rich territory for television series.
After years of series exploring true crime, miscarriages of justice and the behind-the-scenes antics of sports, series producers are now heavily investing in shows inspired by the world of business.
“The Dropout,” which premiered stateside on March 3 on Hulu, fictionalizes the sordid story of Theranos, a Silicon Valley startup that vowed to revolutionize blood tests but never lived up to its promise.
Its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, at the time was crowned the youngest “self-made” woman billionaire in the world but a jury in January found her guilty of criminal fraud against investors.
And just before that premiere, the platform Showtime launched “Super Pumped,” a series on the rise of Uber and the subsequent fall of its founder Travis Kalanick.
Kalanick was forced to resign in 2017 in the wake of revelations accusing him of brutal management practices and a number of episodes of sexual and psychological harassment at the company.
Apple TV meanwhile will release “WeCrashed” on March 18, an eight-episode fictional series on another flagship of the “gig economy”: the office-sharing company WeWork, and its eccentric founder Adam Neumann.
That boss was ousted in 2019 over his controversial management style.
For David Brown, the host of the podcast “WeCrashed” that inspired the show, the interest largely comes from fierce competition between streaming platforms seeking fresh content.
Like “WeCrashed,” “The Dropout” is also based on an eponymous podcast produced by ABC news concerning the Theranos affair.
“Business is perfect” as a theme, Brown said, “because behind the scenes of every great business story is an incredible story of human struggle.”
He said the common denominator of Theranos, WeWork and Uber cases is their leaders “were all sort of larger-than-life figures.”
“The public enjoys seeing the fall of giants and titans.”
Amanda Seyfried, who plays Holmes in “The Dropout,” recently pointed to a “desperate need to understand” characters like hers.
Holmes left her studies at Stanford University to found Theranos at 19 years old, suddenly gracing the covers of business magazines and getting major political figures like Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and Jim Mattis on her board of directors.
But Seyfried also plays on the weakness of Holmes, known for her severe ponytail, red lipstick and black turtlenecks -- and also for transforming her voice, making it deeper to gain authority, a move also made by her role model, Steve Jobs.
In “WeCrashed,” Adam Neumann, played by Jared Leto, annoys as much as he seduces. His glamorous relationship with his wife Rebekah, played by Anne Hathaway, also features prominently.
But “it takes a lot of people to build a bubble like WeWork,” said one of its creators, Drew Crevello.
“The more we looked at it, it’s more of an indictment of where we are today as a culture in terms of the venture capital ecosystem.”
Brown, however, voiced skepticism of the notion that an appetite for series like these implies broader questioning of capitalism.
“The most compelling stories... say something about our values and the ways that we see the world,” he said.
“I think more than anything else they’re just stories... interesting stories.”
And there’s more to come: HBO recently announced a series on Facebook, “The Doomsday Machine.”