The New Crop of Shows About Grifters Is One Big Scam
Unlike their real-life counterparts, these shows can't recreate the hard sell.
A few episodes into Hulu’s The Dropout—a new series about the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes—I began to wonder why the show I was watching existed. What did it add to everything about Holmes and Theranos that already existed? In 2018, John Carreyou published his exposé about Theranos, Bad Blood. The HBO documentary about Holmes, The Inventor, premiered in 2019, as did The Dropout, a longform podcast that gives the TV series its name. Every major newspaper has painstakingly covered her trial. To put it in the appropriate terms: the bubble is ready to burst. Any TV series interested in finding a new angle to cover Holmes and her board of reply guys risks repeating everything that we already know. Curiously, Hulu’s The Dropout seems uninterested in offering new material about its subject; rather, it serves as a dramatic reenactment of the podcast—stripped, sadly, of any sliver of drama.
The Dropout is not the only scammer series premiering this spring. Joining it is Inventing Anna, Netflix’s nine-episode ridealong with a journalist profiling the faux-German heiress and legitimate con artist Anna Delvey; WeCrashed, a cautionary tale from AppleTV about how WeWork’s Adam Neumann tried make Mondays fun; and Showtime’s anthology series Super Pumped, a show about the demise of Uber made for people who love meetings. That they are all coming out now, after one of the most consequential and damaging scams in American history—the presidency of a con artist—suggests we might be in the midst of a great reckoning with the scammer. We know disruption tends to disrupt vulnerable people’s lives more than corporations. It’s not a surprise when the unicorn transforms into a plastic horse or the CEO puts profit over employees. The Pharma Bro is in prison. Our FYRE Fest money was never refunded. We are tired of scammers. And we want to expose them for who they are: criminals, jerks, terrible dancers.
Gone are the days of Ocean’s Eleven and The Wolf of Wall Street, movies fixated on the allure and sexiness of the scam. These shows offer an unsympathetic perspective. Their scammers are petty and selfish and cruel and greedy and manipulative and humiliatingly unselfconscious. In the first episode of The Dropout, Holmes dances idolatrously to a poster of Steve Jobs staring out from between the spread thighs of Mac monitors; Travis Kalanick tells the sort of one-liners that risk Jokerifying a man; Rebekah Neumann thinks the role of a woman is to support her husband; Anna Delvey can’t believe you don’t know who she is.
Time and again, the scammers come off as flat portraits of greed rather than fully-fleshed human beings. Even if these portraits are accurate—based on the essays and podcasts that inspired the shows—here is a sense of missed opportunity. The reported pieces were hemmed in by word count limits and journalistic integrity; the dramatization, however, is a chance to explore the psychology that gives rise to a scammer, even a mundane one. But every attempt to uncover the psychological trauma that may give rise to a grifter is itself a narrative scam, a feint toward empathy that eventually huddles safely beneath the narrative we already know: the scammer is power hungry and mean. “Imagine a man who wants money so badly he’s willing to lie?” Super Pumped and WeCrashed repeatedly ask. “Imagine a woman who’s bad?” Inventing Anna and The Dropout reply.
The issue is not that the subjects are unsympathetic. There are plenty of great shows about unlikable figures. The problem, in the new wave of scammer shows, is that they too often fail to explore what seduced people into trusting financial deceptions and impossible medical claims. Repeatedly during The Dropout, I found myself screaming “Why do people like her!” at the television. This is partly intentional. Moral superiority is an important pleasure of any scam show—we watch to convince ourselves we would never fall for a grift—but I, for one, prefer to go for a quick swim in my own gullibility. I want to be charmed, the same way I want to gasp and sweat watching a slasher.
Thankfully, there is Anne Hathaway, who deftly portrays Rebekah Neumann, the semi-vegan failcousin of Gwyneth Paltrow, as an empathetic figure of ambition’s collateral damage. She makes sacrifices for her husband and suffers the consequences; she can’t catch a break as an actress; and even if her beliefs are comically woo woo, she, unlike so many others around her, actually believes in something. And Julia Garner is a gravitational Delvey, all accent and self-importance; she understands the heliocentrism of the assignment. WeCrashed and Inventing Anna succeed when they turn away from the scammer to the people they’ve harmed. Inventing Anna is built on these narratives; the true star is journalist Vivian Kent, played by Anna Chlumsky, tracking down stories from Delvey’s true believers and marks. Though a risky narrative decision, the choice to focus on Kent rather than Delvey is appropriate in a world where the scammer is exposed rather than lauded. If the scammer is a fraud, then the stories truly worth telling are those of the people who believed her lies. Super Pumped attempts a similar shift in perspective through a direct address exposing Uber’s misogynist culture. But it comes too late in the show, and rather than investing in the character and her story, the show quickly moves on to other ventures, not unlike Uber HR.
Given the chance to create exaggerated portraits of bravado and self-delusion—to do what journalism and podcasts cannot—these shows instead act as hour-long finger wags. I am not pro-scamming—but I am pro-entertainment. If the scammer is not aggrandized into a figure capable of convincing even the viewer to believe in their lies, there’s not much fun in watching the scammer onscreen.
Though tedious as a creative decision, it does reveal something true about the scammer. The scammer is boring. The scammer wants the simplest things, money and power, in order to gain more money and power. Why does Travis Kalanick want a monopoly over the taxi industry? Because he does. Why does Elizabeth Holmes care so much about blood? The Dropout suggests she got into blood because she got into blood. The scammer is driven by a tautology. These shows want us to see that there is nothing to care about. “Ignore the scammer!” the scammer show cries. “Nobody look at the scammer!” There is a more interesting story to tell, one about belief and trust and shame. But none of these shows seem willing to fully invest in those all-too human concerns. Instead, they keep their distance from the true, messy portraits of betrayal and ambition and embody the very warning they wish to convey to the viewer: Something this flashy must be too good to be true.