Entertainment

The New Crop of Shows About Grifters Is One Big Scam

Unlike their real-life counterparts, these shows can't recreate the hard sell.

Manali Doshi/Thrillist
Manali Doshi/Thrillist
Manali Doshi/Thrillist

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.

Seyfried’s Holmes lacks the dubious charisma that made the entrepreneur believe her own childish lies; she delivers her lines like she wants to maintain plausible deniability should she be accused of platforming Holmes. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is somehow less charismatic as Uber’s Kalanick. The script doesn’t help; everyone on Super Pumped speaks like an understudy in a high school production of Glengarry Glen Ross. Even at his most damning, flouting Apple’s privacy policy and ignoring his employees’ sexual harassment complaints, Gordon-Levitt achieves all the menace of a youth pastor imitating Beelzebub for a sermon. Jared Leto, as Adam Neumann, plays the role with a discomfiting mix of absurdity and self-seriousness; he is a barefoot Prospero casting spells from Business for Dummies.

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.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Alex McElroy is a nonbinary writer and the author of The Atmospherians, a NY Times Editors’ Choice.

Entertainment

Where to Celebrate Lunar New Year 2023 in Australia

And what it means to be in the year of the Rabbit.

where to celebrate lunar new year australia

Starting with the new moon on Sunday, January 22, this Lunar New Year ushers in the year of the Rabbit. We’ve put together a guide on celebrating the Lunar New Year in Australia.

What is special about the year of the Rabbit?

As you might know, each year has an animal sign in the Chinese Zodiac, which is based on the moon and has a 12-year cycle. This year, we celebrate the year of the rabbit, known to be the luckiest out of all twelve animals. It symbolises mercy, elegance, and beauty.

What celebrations are taking place and how can I get involved?

There are plenty of festivals happening all around the country which you can get involved with. Here they are per state.

New South Wales

Darling Harbour Fireworks
When: Every year, Sydney puts on a fireworks show, and this year, you can catch it on January 28 and February 4 at 9 pm in Darling Harbour.

Dragon Boat Races
When: Witness three days of dragon boat races and entertainment on Cockle Bay to usher in the Lunar New Year. The races will commence on January 27 and finish on January 29.

Lion Dances
When: Catch a traditional Lion Dance moving to the beat of a vigorous drum bringing good luck and fortune for the Lunar New Year. The dance performances will happen across Darling Harbour on Saturday, January 21, Sunday, January 22, and Sunday, February 4 and 5, around 6 pm and 9 pm.

Lunar New Year at Cirrus Dining
When: Barangaroo’s waterfront seafood restaurant, Cirrus, is celebrating the Year of the Rabbit with a special feast menu. Cirrus’ LNY menu is $128pp with optional wine pairing and is available from Saturday, January 21, to Sunday, February 5.

Auntie Philter
When: Hello Auntie’s owner and executive chef, Cuong Nguyen will be dishing out some of the most classic Vietnamese street foods with his mum, Linda. All of Philter’s favourites will be on offer, as well as Raspberry Pash Beer Slushies and other cocktails being served at the Philter Brewing rooftop bar on Sunday, January 22 and Sunday, January 29.

Victoria

Lunar New Year Festival
When: Ring in the Lunar New Year with food, music, arts, and more on Sunday, January 22, from 10 am to 9 pm.

Lunar New Year at the National Gallery of Victoria
When: Celebrate the year of the rabbit at the National Gallery of Victoria’s festival of art, food, and art-making activities for everyone from 10 am-5 pm.

Queensland

BriAsia Festival
When: From February 1-19, Brisbane will come alive with performances, including lion dances and martial arts displays. There will be street food, workshops, comedy and more.

South Australia

Chinatown Adelaide Street Party
When: Adelaide is set to hose a fun-filled day celebrating the Chinese New Year on Saturday, January 28, from 12 pm to 9 pm.

Western Australia

Crown Perth
When: Across January and February, Crown Perth hosts free live entertainment, including colourful lion dances, roving mascots, and drumming performances. The restaurants will also throw banquets and menus dedicated to the Lunar New Year.

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