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From WeCrashed to Inventing Anna, shows about CEOs need bite

The idea behind these shows is a romanticisation of swindlers and con-artists, who are portrayed as swaggering visionaries 

Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway in ‘WeCrashed’
Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway in ‘WeCrashed’

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Has the Academy Award winning actor Jared Leto ever been better suited to a character than that of Adam Neumann, delusional founder of coworking company WeWork? In the Apple TV+ series WeCrashed, Leto embodies Neumann as a messiah who has only just learnt the word messiah. Long haired and lanky, Leto looks like a composite pulled together from faces of attractive men — Tom Hiddleston, a young Jim Carrey — without ever being attractive himself. His Neumann resembles a waxwork of the slitherer-in-chief Jim Morrison. All lizard, not quite king.

Created by Drew Crevello and Lee Eisenberg, WeCrashed is yet another log on the trash-fire of cautionary tales about glamorous entrepreneurs gone wrong. There’s the unbearable Super Pumped (Voot) about Travis Kalanick of Uber, while The Dropout (Disney+ Hotstar), about Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, may be one of the standout shows of the year. Netflix hit Inventing Anna was about a con-artist not an actual founder, but that difference seems semantic. Capitalising on the carcasses of failed CEOs is only to be expected from a generation of television creators — and audiences — raised on Shark Tank

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It is as if TV networks discovered The Social Network, one of the best written and directed English language films of this century, and decided to turn it into an entire genre. A genre of people asking for millions and being told to upgrade their dreams to billions. Of founders who shed scruples like snakeskin as they get better at selling digital snake-oil. Of business fundamentals being explained in dimly lit nightclubs so as to make them seem vaguely exciting. A genre of people who talk a big game.

To quote what Mark Zuckerberg’s ex-girlfriend said in that film about dating the man who would go on to spitefully create Facebook: “It’s exhausting.” 

Neumann is the single most tiresome of these founders, and his frenetic narcissism makes WeCrashed a chore from the start. Yet, akin to the Reality Distortion Field the late Steve Jobs was known for — the ability to change doubting minds through charisma, hyperbole and braggadocio — its hard to look away. Leto is hypnotic as Neumann, and Anne Hathaway is superb as his enabling wife, the fabulously flighty Rebekah Paltrow. This is not a good show, but I’ve looked forward to every episode. (The Shark Tank comparison clearly doesn’t end at genre.)

Leto plays Neumann like a zealot making up his own cult. His lines are nonsensical and dripping with (unearned) confidence: “You didn’t close him”, someone says about an investor Neumann has failed to convince. “Oh yes, I did,” replies the eternally smug Neumann. “He just doesn’t know it yet.” It’s David-Mamet-for-dummies, but somehow Leto feeds on the ridiculousness of the words. Everything is an affectation, and every statement a dropped microphone.

As his breathy wife Rebekah, Hathaway demonstrates an all-consuming love for aphorisms. A woman who spends her life as a trapeze act going from one leap of faith to another, it’s fascinating to watch a character so eager to believe in something. She says things like “Let’s manifest the sun,” and when Hathaway brightens up, we all do. The actress has a visibly good time with this lactose-free performance, and even when dressed as a big-eared blue Avatar heroine, her eyes are desperate for meaning. A meaning, ideally, that she can wear on a t-shirt.

That need to boil meaning — particularly financial jargon — down to easily digested TV gets in the way of storytelling. Its hard to build a narrative when you start an episode by explaining EBITDA and end it by quoting from a goofy corporate prospectus. This approach can be blamed on Adam McKay’s fantastic film The Big Short (Netflix) where financial concepts were explained with immense, memorable flair. In these lesser shows, they seem shoe-horned in.

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The ‘big’ idea behind these flatteringly-cast shows is a complete romanticisation of The Hustle™. Swindlers and con-artists are portrayed as swaggering visionaries attempting to do bigger, dream bigger, win bigger. The win is all that counts, and for a large part of their run — say for 6 out of these prolonged 8 episode runs — the audience is meant to be behind the slimebag in the spotlight. This is an effective (and conventional) way to build up a protagonist, but since these characters are not fictional, that approach feels irresponsible.

I’m reminded of Hansal Mehta’s Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story (SonyLiv) which, while skilfully crafted and well performed, displayed the worrying tendency to keep finding underdog arcs for its immoral protagonist: being looked down by golfing bankers was evidently reason enough to upend the banking system. Achint Thakkar gave the show a terrific tune, but repeatedly painting Mehta as a misunderstood hero may not have been the best theme.

The Social Network, directed by David Fincher and written by Aaron Sorkin, is available on Netflix. The film is still a stunner, but dealing with a surly founder as opposed to one who enables genocide, now feels catastrophically naive. If anything, these CEOs-gone-astray stories aren’t pushing hard enough. We need to tell supervillain origin stories instead of tales of visionaries carried away by ambition. Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg would intimidate Darth Vader and Mogambo. Give the devils their due. The time for soft-launches and beta versions is over. Let there be fright.

Streaming tip of the week:

Where would unscrupulous CEOs be without their lawyers? The sixth and final season of Better Call Saul, an excellent character study about the fall of a lawyer, has started on Netflix. This is the season where, at long last, Breaking Bad antiheroes Walter White and Jesse Pinkman will show up. Run.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of ‘The Best Baker In The World’ (2017), a children’s adaptation of ‘The Godfather’.

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