Bad people doing bad things has always been a trusty recipe for good television but lately, a new crop of villains has been holding us hostage. Gone are the meth-cooking science teachers and New Jersey mob bosses. In their place are the swindlers, the con artists, the tech gurus intent on changing the world and, also, owning it. TV is in its scammer culture era and the success of shows like The Dropout, WeCrashed, Super Pumped, and Inventing Anna proves it.
But, as fun as it might be to watch morally corrupt modern-day robber barons squeeze the most from their meteoric rise to power before crashing spectacularly thanks to their own terrible behavior, do we now have too much of a good (or bad, depending on who you ask) thing?
Uproxx writers Jason Tabrys and Jessica Toomer debate whether the recent glut of Silicon Valley scammers on TV is something we should be celebrating or not.
Jason: Toxic tech and scammer culture shows like Super Pumped, WeCrashed, The Dropout, Inventing Ana… I worry that these are instructive. Convince me I’m wrong.
Jess: You’re not? There is something really aspirational about seeing people scam their way to the top because isn’t that what we all want to do?
Jason: No. That’s the thing.
Jess: That’s what I want to do. Maybe that’s why these shows are hitting — because we want to avoid having to trudge through life. We all want to be like Anna Delvey, secretly.
Jason: I think I’m realizing now that I come at this, maybe, from too moralistic of a standpoint.
Jess: Your fear is that watching these shows is going to make people want to replicate that behavior. I think the argument is that behavior has been happening for a very long time. TV’s just now reflecting it.
Jason: Yeah, I think we didn’t use to have as much of a view on the corporate culture with some of these companies and the misdeeds that some of these people get away with. It’s just been Caligula for the financial set, really, people just getting over and breaking rules. I get surprised that people watch shows about people getting away with stuff like this considering the wealth gap and its broad societal impact… that they don’t get more pissed off. It’s become our popcorn entertainment. That’s weird to me. Is that not weird to you?
Jess: I think there are consequences. I think that is an interesting point though: who suffers consequences and who doesn’t, but I don’t know. These are worlds we’re never going to live in, so it doesn’t bother me to see people rise and fall in them. I think even for someone like the Uber guy, yes, he still has a ton of money, but for someone like that, ego is an even bigger driving factor in your life. So having everyone know you failed at something probably sucks worse than going to prison for normal people. You have to put yourself in their mindset.
Jason: You make a good point about the difference between an Inventing Anna and a Travis Kalanick and Super Pumped. Inventing Anna was largely really taking advantage of banks and rich people. We had talked before about Hustlers being in this general realm, but that becomes a Robin Hood story almost because of who’s getting rolled. The appeal of stories like that, I understand that more. Inventing Anna, to an extent, I understand more, but people who watch these stories of financial largess where people are losing savings, 401ks, and stuff like that, or about people playing the market, it’s just odd how these characters get humanized or are made to be cheer-worthy. Odd that it works so well, I mean.
Jess: I don’t watch TV to hold a mirror up to my morality so I’m not having the problem you are having.
Jason: There are too many of these though, right? The way it is, it just dilutes the pool, doesn’t it?
Jess: It’s a good point. Too many shows have come out at the same time, so it’s almost like they’re drowning each other out. I think you can have too much of a good thing. I don’t know if you think these shows are a good thing. I do, though.
Jason: I mean, again, it’s dependent on the individual show. I did not get into WeCrashed. Jared Leto, whenever he is making choices, I need to steer way clear of him.
Jess: He’s always making choices.
Jason: I’m not familiar with the backstory of WeWork. I’ve been in a WeWork once in my life, I don’t really understand what happened there.
Jess: WeWork was like a cult, so I think the show had that going for it, too.
Jason: They’re all like cults.
Jess: I guess that’s true. I love a good cult story.
Jason: When I interviewed Kyle Chandler for Super Pumped, he didn’t seem to buy into that theory, and he had a good point about the drive for financial gain being the strongest thing within a corporate culture, as opposed to in a cult (where it’s more about following someone no matter your personal reward). But I feel like those two lines blur, and maybe you go in trying to enrich yourself financially but at a certain point in time, I think you grow to like being part of that thing. The tribe mentality is really off-putting when viewed through the lens of how far these businesses are willing to go. But it also comes down to the question of choices. They’re not making bad decisions because those things advance that business per se. They’re making bad choices because they’re rich and powerful and able to get away with it. And they lack a moral compass — I don’t know if it fell out of their pocket while they were taking the roller coaster up or if it just wasn’t there to begin with.
Jess: I think the whole greed machine beats out the best in anyone. So if you started out with morals, you’re going to lose them by the time you get to the top. That’s how it is in politics. I think that’s how it is in Silicon Valley. I think Kyle Chandler is just too pure to really understand that. He’s on his ranch with his dogs, just trying to do the best he can for the world.
Jason: Yeah, I never expected Kyle Chandler to be pulled into this world. But I will tell you, he comes out of it okay.
Jess: Of course he does. Coach Taylor will always triumph.
Jason: Now we’ve crashed… so please bring us back to the point.
Jess: Are these shows actually good?
Jason: Are we asking if they’re good in terms of quality or are they good for the sake of entertainment? Any sub-sect of entertainment that starts to feel a little samey is eventually, not going to be good for entertainment. There just seems to be so many of these now.
Jess: With more on the way thanks to the docuseries pipeline.
Jason: Right, and I am really curious about what there is that’s still new to say with these kinds of shows. Even when based on a true story. How many different ways are there to tell these stories? What will the eventual Elon Musk Twitter takeover series really unearth for us? How can they offer much from an entertainment standpoint?
Jess: Well, if you look at superhero franchises …
Jason: Exactly, and I find myself super exhausted by those.
Jess: You don’t think TV could have its own scammerverse?
Jason: Now I’m envisioning the scene from Avengers where they all ride up, crash through the universe, Jeff Bezos on a spaceship, Elon pulling up in a Tesla. All of them coming together to fight… I don’t know what they would be fighting. Us? I think I would watch that. I think I am… Okay, a serious question to wrap up. Are these sad stories?
Jess: I see them as sad stories, which is probably why I enjoy them … because I like watching sad people. I think I understand the idea of idolizing a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates (as many of these characters seem to). But I would argue that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates actually invented things, whereas, to me, none of these people really invented anything.
Jason: I think of them, Uber was the most influential. I feel like Uber is the one that flies closest to being an actual innovation.
Jess: Yes, I think so too. But these weren’t genius. I don’t think any of these people were geniuses.
Jason: You see them as sad. I see them as oftentimes cautionary tales that maybe sometimes spend a little too much time lingering in the, ‘how cool is this shit?’ phase before they show the downfall of these people. I worry that people are missing the cautionary part. It’s like watching Citizen Kane, and at the end, he’s dying and he says, ‘Rosebud,’ and people are like, ‘Yeah, but look how big that fucking house is! Damn! That dude got fucking rich.’
Jess: I would like to say that I think that is a very good read, but I would like to argue that some TV can just be escapism, and sometimes we can just enjoy watching bad people do bad things and it does not have to be a commentary on anything. Don’t we deserve to escape real life, Jason?
Jason: We do. Yes, you’re right. But why is it that… I don’t really have a good rebuttal.
Jess: You have a moral compass and I don’t, and I’m fine with that.
Jason: I’m fine with that too.