Anne Hathaway is not stupid.
Even a few seconds after the start of an interview for We crashed, she knows what we think. It’s the same thing everyone thinks: the miniseries about Adam (Jared Leto) and Rebekah (Hathaway) the $47 billion American company WeWork and its precipitous downfall is eerily similar to all the other miniseries which come out on which is basically exactly the same thing.
Invent AnnaNetflix’s take on a fake German heiress and attempted founder of the so-called Anna Delvey Foundation, was released in early February. super pumpedabout Uber’s beleaguered CEO, premiered a few weeks later. The stallwhich told the true story of Elizabeth Holmes’ fake blood testing company, arrived on Disney+ on March 3.
And Hathaway’s, another series about a mad entrepreneur who rants about his ability to change the world, followed in his footsteps on Friday.
“You are crushing my soul,” she said when it was reported. “But thanks.”
With so many major studios betting big on these stories, it’s a tough trend for miss. Something about the charismatic manipulator who claws his way into – and unsuspecting dupes out of – unimaginable wealth, before spectacularly crashing down to Earth, hooked us.
And even if the idea is not really new, it is worth asking: why are we practically drowning in these stories now? What makes creators (and, arguably, viewers) so obsessed? And are they even getting it right?
Entrepreneurs Make Good TV
When it comes to getting it right, in many ways they’re pretty close. The idea of a multi-billion dollar business built almost entirely around the personality of a single individual before – or even instead of – an idea is based on reality.
Penelope Trunk – a businesswoman, author of numerous books on entrepreneurship and five-time startup founder – said what investors generally look for in a founder is the same thing that makes good television: someone of so preoccupied with a goal that he is not only eager but compelled to focus on the success of their idea against practically everything else in their life.
Trunk explained all of this over the phone while yelling at someone nearby who was apparently yelling back at him.
“You hear my life? This is my life,” she said. “I can’t do life. All I can do is startups.
“But that’s what investors invest in. They don’t invest in that I can function for a minute in my life, because I can’t. They don’t go together. Like, of course, if you can work in your life, you wouldn’t destroy your life to do a startup.”
It makes for inherently good television and interesting characters for actors to brush up on their reels. With method acting on the strings and depictions of seemingly real people surefire way to succeed on the rewards circuitechoing the neurotic actions and seemingly necessarily weird accents of any of these characters is a tempting opportunity.
And the fact that all of this is kind of true is just a bonus.
The characters’ generally odd behavior is also well established. Adam Neumann made often go barefoot; Bad blood author John Carreyrou argued that Elizabeth Holmes “absolutely has sociopathic tendencies” in a Vanity Fair Interview; and Anna Delvey really refused to appear at her trial (several times, in fact) because her the wardrobe did not match her preferences.
Trunk said quirks and self-destructive tendencies within this group are also common in real life. Trunk, who is autistic herself, said neurodivergence is overrepresented among entrepreneurs. And while none of the founders mentioned have been diagnosed (or shared their diagnoses) with similar disorders, similar associations were observed – and even Tesla founder Elon Musk recently shared that he is on the spectrum.
Trunk said that’s because traits like ADHD and autism attract purposeful, highly motivated individuals who find it difficult to fit into traditional workplaces.
“When people look at all the founders who fail,” she says, “these founders failed at everything but great ideas and [have been] super focused all their life.”
TV shows ‘often amplify extremes’
Then there is the other side. Where these series show entrepreneurs building something from scratch, they do so at the expense of duped investors.
Andre Charoo, a Canadian venture capitalist and founding partner of Maple VC, said that in addition to the writers and creators clearly choosing extreme cases for their shows, the events themselves are specifically highlighted, to a specific effect.
While investors often start out investing in ideas and a company can fly by the seat of its pants, things balance out quickly as VCs require more oversight. As businesses grow naturally, they quickly move from the ideas and salesmanship phase, and directly rooted in the maniacal yet efficient personality of the founder, it quickly becomes more about business what the leader can sell.
While audiences are thrilled to see oblivious fatcats talk about their money through a type of rags to riches, Charoo said these shows often eliminate those ups and downs, “amplify the extremes of both spectra” and make everything look like the journey to a deck of cards ready to rock at any time rather than just the first steps.
For example, Charoo was one of Uber’s first 25 employees and helped bring the company to Canada. As he saw the order of events in super pumped was obviously being manipulated, what stood out the most was Uber’s office.
At first, he said, nothing looked as clean or professional as portrayed on the show — an image of efficiency that casts CEO Travis Kalanick as a hero of the tech movement at the Steve Jobs before he even started.
“There was so much written about the story and the journey and the ups and downs,” Charoo said. “And so those ups and downs come together in a made-for-TV story that throws the timeline out of whack, the characters out of whack. Like, that’s not a complete portrayal.”
An ancient archetype
This framing is nothing new. While Charoo said we’re likely to get more such stories because commercial “unicorns” (private companies valued at over $1 billion) are more common in the digital age – while companies that fetch those huge prizes are also more of a part of our daily lives for the same reason – the archetype is already well established.
When the wolf of Wall Street first premiered (as critic Esther Zuckerman written at the time), the more Leonardo DiCaprio played up the debaucherous acts of his fraudulent lead, the more the public seemed to root for him. And while he was loved in Catch Me If You Can for portraying the real Frank Abagnale Jr., ingeniously evading the FBI for years, a recent investigative book argued that nearly all of Abagnale’s claims were inflated to gain fame and adulation.
So why do we love the startup story?
Dr. Michael Freeman is an entrepreneur, author, and clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine who conducts research on the mental health of entrepreneurs. He said that while their mindset is often “systematically different” from that of jobholders, that’s not why we’re drawn to the startup story.
We’re drawn in because the way it’s shown isn’t true to life.
“What’s true about entrepreneurship is that it tends to be an emotional roller coaster,” Freeman said. “These shows are really about much more spectacular characters… messianic or sociopathic or something like that, which most entrepreneurs don’t.”
Instead, startup shows just ride a wave of high-profile stories available to fit — and our unique, yet odd, tendency to seek out a hustler as long as they’re confident, no matter How many Lives they destroy.
Why do we like it? It is up to the greatest minds to take this into account.