Partly, that’s a function of TV: A story needs a protagonist, and a protagonist needs an arc, so a spectacular fall needs to be preceded by an idealistic rise. But partly it’s a signal that we’re all still primed for a con. When charismatic people say they’re changing the world for the better, we still want to believe them.
The first piece of pop culture to treat a tech founder as a bona fide cultural figure may have been “The Social Network,” the 2010 psychodrama about Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, directed by David Fincher and written by Aaron Sorkin. Twenty-ten was the Paleozoic era when it comes to tech: Facebook was rising fast, but was still more of a curiosity than a global force. Nobody was reckoning yet with how deeply the platform would change the social fabric or how easy it would be, based on Zuckerberg’s decisions, to manipulate its algorithms to sow conflict and misinformation.
Or, at any rate, that wasn’t the story Sorkin and Fincher were telling. This was a movie about brash young men on the verge of success — the interpersonal conflicts, the ego clashes, the emotional backstories. (Sorkin researched the screenplay concurrently with Ben Mezrich, who was writing what the New York Times called a “nonfictionish book” called The Accidental Billionaires.) Sorkin created a mythology that cast Zuckerberg as a lonely outsider, propelled by a breakup, striving to belong. In reality, the Facebook founder married his college girlfriend, and now both of them are rich at otherworldly levels. But the Hollywood origin story persists — in the public mind, Zuck is still a pitiable guy in a hoodie, changing the world out of spite.
The driving forces of the founders’ insecurities and feelings of inadequacy are a running theme in the more recent TV shows, too. In “Super Pumped,” Kalanick, played by Joseph Gordon Levitt with jittery energy, talks earnestly to his mother about his insecurities at the same time he puts on a swashbuckling show for investors. In “WeCrashed,” Neumann (Jared Leto) seems pathetic at the start: belittled by venture capitalists, emasculated by his father-in-law, manipulated by his wife (Anne Hathaway), a self-absorbed self-promoter who is a vessel for much of the weirdness.
In “The Dropout,” Holmes (Amanda Seyfried) starts as an underdog — smart and ambitious but socially awkward, with a background of trauma that matches what Holmes tearfully testified in her 2021 trial. Her artful wooing of older male investors comes only after her straightforward attempts at earning money fail and she realizes she needs more razzmatazz. The series even suggests that her initial lie about whether Theranos’ blood-testing devices actually work has a somewhat noble purpose: To keep the scientific research afloat and her employees employed, she has to stretch the truth, at least for a little while, until the lie becomes too big to back away from.
In each of these series, idealism leads to ambition, followed by the cultivation of an image to match the myth. “The Dropout” gives Holmes an on-the-nose epiphany at an Apple Store, and shows her transformation from business casual to Steve Jobs cosplay in dramatic slow motion. The camera in “Super Pumped” also lingers on Kalanick’s decision to slick back his hair, and gives the character lines that amount to thesis statements. “When I came into this, I was willing to break shit,” he says at one point, “because that is what revolution requires.” Neumann, in “WeCrashed,” gets a thesis statement of his own — an indictment of the venture capital apparatus — when his partner points out that he’s misrepresenting the state of his office-space-leasing business. “We have hundreds of buildings; we just haven’t acquired them yet,” Neumann says, with utter confidence. “The valuation is just the amount someone is willing to pay.”
These TV shows are all, in a sense, variations on that idea. None of these revolutions would have been revolutions — or massive moral and financial screwups — if they weren’t fueled by venture capital and undergirded by investors’ failure of due diligence, whether it was a willingness to believe a founder at face value, or an unwillingness to have the big fight that would open the books or expose the fakery.
Partly, these series suggest, that’s because these founders are sharp and ruthless negotiators. But they also understand how to deliver precisely the messages that myopic investors want to hear. Holmes knows to tell a VC in a Stetson hat that she’s essentially a cowboy, how to charm a Walgreens executive with tales of his own accomplishments, and how to play off a broad social appetite to see a certain type of woman succeed. In another thesis-statement scene, three older observers who see through Holmes’ façade discuss how she’s gotten so far. “Why does everyone want to believe in this girl so badly?” one asks. “She makes the men in tech and business feel good without challenging them,” another answers. “Yeah,” says the third. “And she’s pretty and blonde.” They’re good at the system, the series suggest; it’s not their fault the system is so rotten.
We all know how it ends. In the series, the founders fall from grace; employees lose their jobs; investments disappear into nothingness. But in real life, maybe no hard feelings from the VCs? Early Uber investor Bill Gurley, who spars frequently with Kalanick in “Super Pumped,” tweeted kind words about Kalanick when he resigned from the company in 2017. And while Uber’s 2019 IPO was considered a failure, Kalanick — whose app did, unlike the others, disrupt a major industry — cashed his stock for $2.5 billion and now tweets about his own VC investments. WeWork lost most of its value, but Neumann left the company with $445 million and is now investing in startups. Months before her January fraud conviction, Elizabeth Holmes was reportedly making the Silicon Valley VC rounds, trying to raise money for a new venture.
And in general, the myth of the disruptive company seems alive and well. As Malcolm Harris recently pointed out in The Nation, the number of “unicorn” startups, valued at $1 billion or more, increased more than tenfold between 2015 and today. If each company is run by someone with a similar ambition and shameless sales ability, there’s no reason the cycle won’t repeat itself. “Without proportional revenue and assets to fall back on,” Harris wrote, “CEO-founders are one bad day away from becoming some Oscar-winning actor’s next middlebrow project.”
That’s the danger of these flashy TV narratives that turn con artists into three-dimensional antiheroes. Silicon Valley can enable dangerous personality types: hucksters, pathological liars. Politics can, too. We’re all suckers for a story, and painting fast-talking founders as pawns in a messed-up system keep us from grappling with that threat. If we can’t quit the founders and the unicorns now — if we’re just waiting around for the redemption arc — what will happen when the next would-be disruptor comes along? TV suggests that we’ll be taken for a ride.