The ‘Hollywood Goes Tech’ Trend Continues With Super Pumped, The Dropout, But It Could Benefit From New PerspectivesPhotos courtesy of Hulu Tech Features The Dropout
Every now and then, the stars align and Hollywood gifts us multiple stories with similar themes. In the fall of 2006, it was 30 Rock and Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, both television series set backstage at SNL-style shows. In 2018, the dystopic thriller films A Quiet Place and Bird Box premiered within months of each other.
We’re currently living through Hollywood’s tech drama era. Over a three week period, the content deities will bestow upon us a trio of shows centered around unicorn startups. Super Pumped: The Battle For Uber, Showtime’s anthology series starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Kyle Chandler, and Elisabeth Shue, premiered on February 27th. The Dropout, Hulu’s new drama featuring Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes, comes out today, March 3rd. WeCrashed, the Anne Hathaway, Jared Leto, and America Ferrera-fronted series chronicling the decline of WeWork airs March 18th on Apple TV+.
Three isn’t just a crowd; it’s a pattern. Content creators of today appear to have developed a pattern of churning out shows about tech startups and their dubiously-behaved founders. And it’s concerning that, despite how much critical analysis or Twitter navel gazing takes place on the subject of representation and whose stories deserve to be told, the people we keep choosing to highlight are evil tech dweebs.
Not that there isn’t an appetite for these types of stories. In 2021, The Washington Post reported that Elizabeth Holmes’ trial was “the hottest ticket in Silicon Valley; HBO’s show by that same name ended in 2019 after six seasons and multiple Emmy nominations. In 2017, Netflix debuted—and retired—their comedy, Girlboss, about Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso. Both The Dropout and WeCrashed were adapted from popular podcasts, and Super Pumped is based on New York Times journalist Mike Isaac’s eponymously titled book.
“I am the company!” screams Gordon-Levitt as Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick from his limousine. For people living outside of tech spaces, this moment from the Super Pumped trailer feels especially poignant. It’s easy to conflate companies with their creators, especially when the media attention a founder receives far eclipses that of their business.
There are so many interesting stories to be told about Silicon Valley, but it feels like we keep hearing the same ones over and over again. The tragedy of what happened to regular employees at Theranos is overshadowed by the spectacle that is Elizabeth Holmes. In an oversaturated celebrity market, tech billionaires, grifters, and startup founders have emerged as a new kind of star. And the only thing more compelling than watching their rise is anticipating their inevitable fall.
All three of these new shows have positioned their protagonists as anti-heroes, blinded by their missions and millions of dollars. And in our increasingly superhero loving, “eat the rich’’ leaning society, there is a sense that tech leaders like these exhibit vaguely supervillain-esque qualities and these shows provide insight into their origin stories. There’s also a sense that stories about the chaos these founders create might offer more insight if they were told from any perspective other than their own.
With the paralyzing amount of content available right now, it’s questionable as to whether viewers will reengage with stories they’ve followed countless times across multiple mediums. WeWork’s fall was covered in Wondery’s 2020 podcast and a Hulu documentary from April of 2021. Theranos’ implosion merited a special 20/20 episode, a HBO documentary (The Inventor: Out For Blood), and two podcasts (Bad Blood and The Dropout). Uber’s issues have been covered in a documentary (The Uber Story), in podcasts, and in a viral blog post. All three businesses and their leaders have been prosecuted in articles and memed to death on social media; all three companies have undergone serious, public lawsuits. Is there anything new Apple TV+ can add to the WeWork story, besides Anne Hathaway and Jared Leto?
Then there’s an argument to be made that it’s too early to tell these stories, given that some are still unfolding in real time. Elizabeth Holmes’ case continues to rattle around the legal system-she’s scheduled to be sentenced on September 26th after being convicted of three counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Holmes faces 80 years in prison and her case is expected to serve as a cautionary tale for the tech industry.
Regardless of how these shows fare—so far, reviews for both Super Pumped and The Dropout have been mixed—the tech drama genre will not end here. In their show synopsis, Super Pumped promises each installment of their series “will explore a story that rocked the business world to its core and changed culture.” The next season is expected to cover the history of Facebook.
The tech world is based upon the principles of risk and reward, and stakes like these create compelling scripts. What will push the genre forward is expanding upon who gets to tell these stories. Centering stories around the whistleblowers, the people who lost jobs or fought against tech corruption—in short, the good guys—will add some variety to a genre that feels slightly stale after only a few years. At least for the moment, however, tech drama—and its villains—are here to stay.