TV seems to savor two kinds of real-life stories – true crime and true tech. Now come the tales of:
–Uber and Travis Kalanick. “Super Pumped” (shown here), 10 p.m. Sundays on Showtime, starts Feb. 27.
— Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes. First was an HBO documentary movie; next is “The Dropout,” a Hulu mini-series Thursdays, starting March 3.
Both depict a hard-charging person, creating a billion-dollar business; still, there’s a key difference. “Travis isn’t a con man, said “Super Pumped” producer Beth Schacter. His idea worked. “We all walk around with Uber in our pocket; we don’t walk around with Theranos.”
The Theranos blood-testing device was discredited and Holmes was convicted of fraud. Kalanick may be prone to hype, but his idea worked, Schacter said. “He really willed something into existence.”
That required a strong will and a loud voice. “There are fireworks coming out of his mouth,” said Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays him.
These two shows follow other recent ones about tech or business schemers, based in fact (“Dopesick,” “Valley of the Boom”) or fiction (“Billions,” “Black Monday,” “Halt and Catch Fire”).
At the core, Gordon-Levitt said, is an economic philosophy that tells people to go big or vanish. “If their company doesn’t grow like crazy, they lose the game. They won’t get venture capitalists” to invest.
Into that world stepped two whip-smart people.
Holmes, now 38, was the daughter of an Enron vice-president who lost his job when the company folded. After less than two years as an engineering major, she quit Stanford to start a healthcare company. Her product, she said, could get great information from a small blood sample.
“I think she went into it with good intentions,” said Elizabeth Meriwether, a “Dropout” producer. The show will “take us through that journey, where those good intentions fell apart.”
The device failed its trials. Still, Holmes told people it worked; she may even have told herself that. “If you want to believe something badly enough,” said Amanda Seyfried, who plays Holmes, you “have to choose whether or not it’s true. We’re capable of such crazy things.”
Kalanick, now 45, apparently convinced himself that Uber would work and would improve the world.
By one view, it has destroyed the lives of middle-income taxi-drivers; by another, those lives were already shattered by the system. In San Francisco (where Uber started), New York and elsewhere, people spent a fortune to own an authorized cab. “It ended up putting a huge surcharge on the drivers and exploited them,” said producer David Levien.
Eventually, Kalanick was accused of ignoring sexual harassment; he was ousted from Uber. By then, he had created a behemoth – sometimes, Gordon-Levitt said, using the schemes and hype of modern business. “Often, you have to be Machiavellian; you have to be a predator.”