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Call it Techlash TV: ‘Super Pumped,’ ‘The Dropout’ try to bottle the fizz of founder implosion

New limited series about tech unicorns with ousted CEOs still venerate the founder role, if not these particular founders.

Call it Techlash TV: ‘Super Pumped,’ ‘The Dropout’ try to bottle the fizz of founder implosion
Amanda Seyfried, in The Dropout, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in Super Pumped. [Source Images: Jessica Brooks/SHOWTIME; Beth Dubber/Hulu]

If you want to understand why there are three prestige limited series coming out in the next few weeks devoted to the fallen tech founders of Uber, Theranos, and WeWork, you have to wrestle with the 2010 movie The Social Network. The influence of the Aaron Sorkin-David Fincher film cannot be overstated. Just as Facebook is the tech success story that every founder wants to emulate, The Social Network is the artistic success story every project about founders wants to match. From its icy, synth-drenched score to its litigious framing, from its clever dialogue to its fizzy aura of boundless possibility, The Social Network is the eternal blueprint. Considering the similarities in the founder stories that followed in real life, though, this new wave of limited series—Super Pumped, about Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, debuts on Showtime, February 27; Hulu’s The Dropout, about Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes, drops March 2; AppleTV’s depiction of the rise and fall of WeWork CEO Adam Neumann, WeCrashed, bows March 18—is in danger of crystallizing into trite formula. Call it Techlash TV.

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The stories of Theranos, Uber, and WeWork are all comprised of the same elements: humble beginnings, a eureka moment, motivational speeches to overworked teams, paydirt, tyrant mode, founders turning against partners, and partners turning against founders. What separates these stories from The Social Network’s haunting denouement, though, is the “back half of every episode of Behind the Music” factor. Unlike Mark Zuckerberg in 2010, everything falls apart for these would-be empire builders. All of their stories could be adequately boiled down to the following viral tweet:

So, what, ultimately, is the appeal of watching these similar, fairly well-known stories play out across 10 hours of TV? Is it getting to actually see the fabled 12-minute meeting between Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son and WeWork founder Adam Neumann, played by Jared Leto doing an accent that sounds like Israeli Tommy Wiseau?

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For outsiders who have only vaguely heard that the founder of Uber was kind of a dick, and that Holmes was convicted of fraud, these shows are brimming with incendiary details, bound to inspire breathless confirmation-Googling. For insiders who already have all the tea, the draw is seeing which details the creators have chosen to include, how much drama they can wring out of them, and how much deviation the formula can withstand.

The Dropout stands out because creator Liz Meriwether, known for The New Girl, infuses it with comedic contempt for Silicon Valley. One notable scene depicts Holmes, played by Amanda Seyfried, shrieking in line at an Apple store in 2007, surrounded by Steve Jobs cosplayers, as the first customer of the day purchases a first-generation iPhone. At the time, she was a mere handful of years away from being anointed the next Steve Jobs. In this moment, though, she looks like just any other fan swept up in the effervescence of founder worship.

Being a founder, after all, involves so much more than starting a company, especially if one intends that company to be valued at more than $1 billion: a unicorn. Long after steering a unicorn to outsize success, the founder must continue being a founder all the time—a second full-time job that has nothing to do with running the company. It requires, depending on the day, being a carnival barker, a mythic figure, a guru, a cult leader, and an army general. Judging by The Dropout, Holmes found this part of the job just as important, if not more so, than making money or changing the world. Unlike the adjacent shows also debuting in the next several weeks, only The Dropout doesn’t seem to think its viewers feel the same way about founders as Elizabeth Holmes did before she became one.

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Super Pumped, by contrast, is notable for just how chaotic-cool it presents this world, and how determined its creators are to never bore their audience.

Super Pumped is a natural brand extension for the brains behind Billions: Brian Koppelman and David Levien. It plays like the Wolf of Silicon Valley, a spiritual sequel to Martin Scorsese’s equally fast-paced Wall Street saga. Uber cofounder Travis Kalanick, played here by an all-in Joseph Gordon-Levitt, talks a mile a minute and almost exclusively in tweet-friendly quotables. Since the real-life characters he talks with in this manner are among the smartest and richest people in the world, every frequent tête-à-tête feels heightened and hypercharged.

When the show isn’t dazzling with dialogue, it’s having fun with narrative form. No sooner does Kalanick mentally flash back to the Uber eureka moment than the show explodes his self-mythologizing to reveal the app’s actual inception, which he was not involved in. Every now and then, the narrator—Quentin Tarantino, whose involvement cosigns the proceedings the way that having Larry Ellison on a startup’s board might—cuts in to graphically illustrate how board meetings are like brawls, or why Uber taking over New York is like a video game. If you don’t enjoy what’s happening in Super Pumped, wait two seconds and something entirely new will take its place.

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No amount of structural mischief, however, can disguise the fact that all of these shows feel like the origin stories of supervillains. (Watching Elizabeth Holmes slowly cultivate The Voice and lean into her signature wardrobe is especially Joker-esque.) The problem is that, rather than each occurring in an interconnected comic book universe, these stories all hail from the interconnected universe of real life. Just as with comic books, this universe is teeming with other characters who are ready for their close-up. Watching Techlash TV provokes the abject terror of knowing with absolute certainty that someday soon we’ll see the Elon Musk limited series, with dramatically enhanced reenactments of shady shit we don’t even know about yet.

In the meantime, Super Pumped and WeCrashed, the latter of which is currently under embargo, risk glorifying the founder-worship that The Dropout indicts. It’s the issue that critics worry about with some of Martin Scorsese’s movies: That viewers will leave with the takeaway that gangsters and slimeball stock brokers are aspirational figures. Neither of the new shows is fully on the side of its antiheroes, but the same can’t be said for these antiheroes’ heroes.

“Those are kings, gods,” Kalanick says in Super Pumped about Musk, Zuck, and the Google guys.

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It seems as though the viewer is meant to agree. Super Pumped openly reveres the movers and shakers of tech and finance like the contestants on Shark Tank do the sharks. We’re definitely supposed to be jazzed, for instance, when Mark Cuban briefly shows up as himself.

But the key difference between antiheroes like Kalanick and the ones who populate Scorsese movies is that the latter meet with pathetic fates. Henry Hill is excommunicated to suburbia and hates his life. Jordan Belfort is a felon selling salesmanship itself in tacky seminars. While Elizabeth Holmes was rightly convicted of fraud for the exploits depicted in The Dropout, Kalanick parachuted out of Uber with $2 billion and is quietly building a ghost kitchen business, while Adam Neumann is currently mounting his comeback as an apartment mogul. These shows ultimately suggest that their antiheroes simply made a few mistakes, rather than that the whole rise-and-grind culture around tech unicorns is toxic, bordering on obscene.

No matter what morality the creators of these shows think they’re projecting onto the world of unicorns and the people who aspire to ride them, any nascent entrepreneurs tuning in are bound to think different.

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