TV Struggles to Put Silicon Valley on the Screen

The first scene in the new Apple TV+ series WeCrashed perfectly sets up the saga that is about to unfold: WeWork‘s board of directors has just voted to remove its founder, Adam Neumann, from the company. Neumann, meanwhile, has just woken up; the hired help brings him a bong in bed. “Rise and grind,” he shouts as he emerges, hungover. He has no idea that he is an entrepreneurial Icarus, his wax wings about to melt.

The plot of WeCrashed should feel familiar at this point. WeWork’s story is practically startup mythology, and a tale made for TV: a bombastic entrepreneur who wants to “elevate the world’s consciousness”; his deific wife, who believes billion-dollar valuations can be “manifested”; and a cast of millennial employees who are equally convinced that they are changing the world and that the office’s free tequila shots are a reasonable substitute for a 401K. The magic of WeCrashed isn’t bringing the story to life—that’s been done before, in books, documentaries, and podcasts. It’s in making Neumann seem human, despite the details you already know.

WeCrashed, which premieres Friday, is one of three new television shows that dramatize familiar startup narratives. Showtime’s super pumped, which focuses on the rise and fall of Uberdebuted at the end of February. Hulu’s The Dropout, about Theranos, came out earlier this month. Each begins with a relentless founder on their way to change the world and ends with those founders severed from their companies and their dreams.

None of these entrepreneurs are especially likable. Uber’s Travis Kalanick (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) alienates everyone in his life while building his company and says tech douche bro things like: “We fuck the status quo!” Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmesed by Amanda) becomes frazzled, and her hairplay frizzy (as she lies to buy more time her product. But we also catch glimpses of moments that are supposed to show the pressure they’re under. These aren’t just entrepreneurs; they’re people.

Hollywood has long had a fascination with Silicon Valley—its villains and its heroes. Directors have portrayed the industry as either courageous and world-altering (The Social Network, Steve Jobs) or fearsome and world-ruining (devs, Black Mirror). The rare show like Silicon Valley captures the truth in between, winking at tech workers who are in on the jokes. Every plot point that seemed too absurd for reality—coders living in a hacker hostel, “Shazam for food,” a major company creating “moonshot” tech to help monkeys masturbate—was pulled directly from real life.

Recent depictions of startup life are less astute. While Super Pumped gets many of the details right, it glorifies Kalanick by making the story revolve around him. It has a strange way of depicting Uber’s employees, who always seem to be sprawled out on couches in the open-plan office so that they are perpetually poised for one of Kalanick’s rousing speeches. In the first two episodes alone, there are four separate scenes where Uber employees whoop for their CEO like high school football fans cheering for a quarterback. Kalanick was larger-than-life, sure, but his employees were people too. In Super Pumpedthey come off more like props.

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