The con is on. And on. And on.
This spring has seen a rash of scripted limited series that can be classified as the true crime subgenre of “true con.” In these stories, no one necessarily gets murdered. But people definitely end up losing their life savings or reputation while audiences are given an inside look at subjects about whom news articles, books, docu-series, or court cases have already shown to be less than credulous.
“Much of what we aspired to do with this was to present a story as fairly as possible and to not assume the worst of people, and to explain that just because people do things that we might disagree with doesn’t automatically make them bad,” said Anne Hathaway, the female lead of Apple TV+’s WeCrashed, who spoke with journalists during the show’s all-virtual winter Television Critics Association press tour in February.
She added that she felt it was “very important” that her limited series, which premieres March 25 and documents the relationship between WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann and his wife Rebekah during the creation (and destruction) of their cult-like office empire, “get the full picture of who [Rebekah] is, because at the end of the day, I’m just playing a human being. I’m just a human being playing a human being.”
Drew Crevallo, who with Lee Eisenberg serves as WeCrashed’s creator and showrunner, noted during the TCA panel that everyone who follows that industry knows about the company’s “meteoric ascent” and its “equally spectacular and kind of historic fall” because “it played out very publicly.” But “what was fascinating to us was there was a relationship—like a love story—at its heart.”
“I do not see them as criminals,” he added, although he does “think that the ethics and morality and human foibles behind their decision are absolutely open for debate.”
But what about true con stories that are about more than just money? Hulu’s limited series The Dropout was filming while its subject, Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes, was on trial for criminal fraud after allegations surfaced that her blood-testing device didn’t actually work. Patients’ health and safety were put in jeopardy thanks to a system that, as the story depicts, originated from the mind of a Stanford dropout with fierce ambitions of wealth and success.
The Dropout executive producer Elizabeth Meriwhether told TCA in February that her program, which stars Amanda Seyfried as the infamously raspy-voiced, black turtleneck aficionado, shows “how important science is and how important the facts are and the truth is.” Given that we’re still in a pandemic where misinformation about vaccines, masks, and social distancing are flying around as fast as an airborne virus, she adds that “I actually think this is the perfect time to tell this story.”
The idea of humanizing con artists, or at least making them empathetic, is bound to cause some concerns—most obviously with their accusers. Rachel Williams, whose relationship with convicted con artist Anna Delvey was depicted in Netflix’s Inventing Anna, has called the Julia Garner-starring miniseries a “dangerous” distortion of events that is “reckless with facts.” “This is a narrative designed to create empathy for a character who lacks it,” she told Vanity Fair. “The whole thing is very problematic.”
Christopher Chavez, an associate professor at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communications—where he specializes in topics like pop culture, communication theory, and persuasive communication—told us these stories are “in some ways like modern-day morality tales.”
“The tradition goes back to having these allegorical figures for these larger concepts like greed or ambition or vanity,” Chavez remarked.
He also said there are a few reasons why we’re seeing so many of these scripted stories right now, and why (despite there being other documentary series like Showtime’s Love Fraud and Netflix’s The Tinder Swindler) the true con world has expanded beyond the idea of a Don Juan-like character who seduces and robs women.
Part of the reason, Chavez explained, is the need for networks and streamers to have enough content to compete against rival outlets and “these are quick stories [that] already pretty much write themselves, and they can be dramatized relatively quickly.”
The other is the worlds in which these shows are set: Almost all of them take place in, or tangentially related to, tech.
“They’re dealing with institutions that are still a mystery to so many folks,” Chavez said. “Things like corporate America and Silicon Valley and social media: as a society, we’re still trying to come to terms with specifically how that works even though we know that they impact our everyday lives in so many meaningful ways.”
Still, many series creators insist that tech is just the backdrop to their stories, if it has a place at all. WeCrashed’s Crevello said WeWork “wasn’t a tech company that dabbled in real estate. This was a real estate company that tried to portray itself as a tech company.”
And Brian Koppelman, the executive producer and writer of Showtime’s Super Pumped, which centers its first season on ride-sharing service Uber, told TCA in February that he didn’t set out to make a project that was going to be part of a trend. He said, simply, his “is the kind of story that happens to be set in the tech world.” He said journalist Mike Isaac’s book that serves as the season’s source material, gave “compelling characters trying to do something very hard and difficult and very often deciding that doing that thing justified all manners of behavior.”
These shows are also, for better or worse, all about outsiders—many of whom are women and/or immigrants—who take down the status quo.
“Many of these institutions are globalized institutions and they draw money from all over the place, so this disrupts the notion of national identity,” Professor Chavez said.
With the depictions of women, he adds, there’s the celebration that “we have complex female characters, which wasn’t a trademark of television for such a long time” but also the downside that these shows could “reify these ideas of women being vilified for being ambitious.”
In the case of stories focusing on foreigners like Inventing Anna’s Delvy and WeCrashed’s Neumann (respectively played by American actors Garner and Jared Leto who utilize heavy accents), Chavez said it could be seen as an “otherness” that is a “threat to national identity through the use of these global institutions.”
It also depends a lot on who is watching these shows. Chavez said he hasn’t heard his students talk about watching something like Inventing Anna “because this world [of social media] makes sense to them.”
“I do think older crowds feel the threat; they feel tangible,” he said. “Their world is changing and it’s changing super quickly. And they just don’t understand it in quite the same way. I think these dramatized scripted versions help them work through—whether it’s true or distorted or not—the specific practices by which you raise venture capital for an effort, how you navigate the system, why exactly it works… kind of drawing back the curtain and seeing how all the mechanisms work.”
If nothing else, perhaps they can learn something from watching ER vet Anthony Edwards: He plays a finance guy who becomes a victim twice over, in both Inventing Anna and WeCrashed.
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.
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