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Hollywood has found a favorite new subject — the failed CEOs of tech companies

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Sometimes Hollywood fixates on a theme. And right now, there are three serial biopics on streaming services that have something in common. In "The Dropout" on Hulu, Amanda Seyfried plays the disgraced head of Theranos.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DROPOUT")

AMANDA SEYFRIED: (As Elizabeth Holmes) The world works in certain ways until a new great idea comes along and changes everything.

SHAPIRO: On Showtime, "Super Pumped: The Battle For Uber" tells the story of Travis Kalanick, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUPER PUMPED: THE BATTLE FOR UBER")

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: (As Travis Kalanick) We work harder, we work longer and we work smarter.

SHAPIRO: And Jared Leto plays the former head of WeWork on the Apple TV+ show "WeCrashed."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WECRASHED")

JARED LETO: (As Adam Neumann) This isn't a place for people to punch in and out. It's a place for people to connect.

SHAPIRO: So why the fascination with startup disruptors who proved a little too disruptive? Two of our in-house experts are here to explain. Bobby Allyn covers tech, and Linda Holmes hosts our Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. Good to have you both here.

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: Thanks, Ari.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: OK, Bobby, for listeners who might not have put the puzzle pieces together, what do these three real-life stories have in common?

ALLYN: Yeah. So Travis Kalanick, Adam Neumann and Elizabeth Holmes were all these larger-than-life tech executives who tried to, you know, disrupt age-old industries - right? - taxi driving, office leasing, diagnostic blood testing. And, you know, all three had this kind of ferocious focus on growing their companies at all costs, just as huge problems were sort of simmering under the surface. And, you know, Ari, eventually these problems were impossible to ignore. And it set in motion their dramatic falls from grace.

SHAPIRO: These people were darlings until they weren't. Their companies were hot until they weren't. Linda, do the shows about them feel similar in tone? Like, is it all tragic Icarus figures flying too close to the sun?

HOLMES: I wouldn't say that. I think you can tell from that clip that the WeWork show, Jared Leto is kind of pushing that portrayal just to the edge of becoming a little silly. That's the one that has, I would say, the most dark comedy. "The Dropout" about Theranos is the purest drama. And then in "Super Pumped" about Uber, you kind of get more of a slick, satirical show that feels very influenced by Adam McKay and things like "The Big Short." So they are actually all a bit different in tone, in addition to kind of the differences in the underlying stories.

SHAPIRO: Bobby, what actually happened to these people in real life for their mismanagement?

ALLYN: Yeah, well, Kalanick was forced out at Uber in 2017, and that came after there was, you know, a big controversy over workplace culture at Uber. Lots of employees there said the company was rife with sexual harassment, discrimination that Kalanick supposedly ignored. And he also, you know, very famously liked ignoring local laws when Uber pushed into new cities. And these days, Kalanick is still around. He's, you know, much more low profile, but he is running a startup that is renting out space to restaurants.

Adam Neumann, he resigned from WeWork back in 2019 after it became very clear that WeWork's business model had no serious long-term plan to make any money. And he too is staying out of the limelight these days. And he seems to be something of a real estate investor, I guess, now.

And Elizabeth Holmes, she stands out among the three because, you know, Theranos was the only company that completely collapsed after a scandal. She's the only one who has been criminally charged. And as we know, a jury found her guilty of defrauding investors back in January. And now she's awaiting a sentencing date, and she could actually face some pretty hefty prison time.

SHAPIRO: OK. To turn back to the shows, Linda, my husband was obsessed with one of these three. I'm not going to tell you which one, but you've watched all of them. Do you think they're any good? Like, are they worth our time?

HOLMES: Well, you know, I think they vary a lot. I think "The Dropout" is by far the most successful. You know, the trick with these shows is that, as Bobby was just saying, you don't really get a super satisfying, like, schadenfreude kind of downfall for these people in most cases. Like, at least two of these people walked away rich and are still rich. It's not clear where Elizabeth Holmes is going to end up, so you have to find something else to make the show about. And I think "The Dropout" is the most successful in making this show kind of about Elizabeth Holmes. I think it also has the most interesting central performance from Amanda Seyfried. I brought you a little clip of her kind of doing one of Elizabeth Holmes' most famous speeches in a pep talk to her staff.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DROPOUT")

SEYFRIED: (As Elizabeth Holmes) I grew up spending summers with my uncle. I remember his love of crossword puzzles and trying to teach us to play football. I remember how much he loved the beach. I remember how much I loved him. He was diagnosed one day with skin cancer, which all of a sudden was brain cancer and in his bones.

HOLMES: And if you have followed the story of Elizabeth Holmes in documentaries or whatever, you've heard her do that story. I think Seyfried did a good job of capturing kind of how she talks without getting too fixated on an impersonation. But I think by far as television, the most successful is "The Dropout."

SHAPIRO: All right, you guessed the one my husband is obsessed with.

HOLMES: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: Bobby, how has the real-life tech world responded to these scandals? Do they see it as an indictment of their culture broadly or a few bad apples? Like, what's the response been?

ALLYN: More of in the few-bad-apples category, I'd say. I mean, after each of these scandals, Silicon Valley says, OK, fine, we're going to do some soul-searching. Investors say we're going to do more homework before we write these enormous checks to companies promising to change the world. But, you know, Ari, that just never happens.

I mean, the pattern is Silicon Valley distances itself from a disgraced CEO. They say, hey, that's not us. This person is an outlier. And then they turn around and make another very high-risk bet on a questionable startup that very well, you know, fail one day. It's just kind of the nature of the game out here.

SHAPIRO: Why do you think this is what Hollywood is focused on right now? I mean, is there something in the water that makes us want these kinds of stories at this moment?

HOLMES: I personally think, you know, my friends - I have to credit my friend Mike Katzif, who's a producer on Pop Culture Happy Hour, who made the point to me that it feels very post-Trump in a sense that, you know, you feel like people are trying to figure out what makes people attracted to kind of these big bets on these big characters. I think that's a really interesting thesis that I liked as soon as I heard it. And I think it's also kind of an example of Hollywood following itself. So you also have this push into true crime and docuseries and all that stuff, that part of it is just once you get one thing, you tend to get a bunch of that thing. That's just kind of how television is.

ALLYN: Yeah, you know, and I think, you know, the question of, you know, how in the world were these people able to pull this off is just something that, like, endlessly fascinates, right? And I think another thing to add to what Linda was just saying is, you know, it's Silicon Valley right now just under pressure like never before. I think all of these stories just tap into a curiosity of, like, what's really going on at these high-flying, secretive tech companies?

SHAPIRO: NPR's Bobby Allyn covers tech, and Linda Holmes hosts the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. Thank you both for the insights.

HOLMES: Thank you.

ALLYN: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.