How TV Got So Obsessed With Tech Downfalls

Just before Walter White calls himself Heisenberg for the first time in Breaking Bad, he shaves his head. It’s a dramatic change in surprising ways: Walter’s voice gets harsher; his family man warmth goes ice-cold; he kills. And he leaves a legacy, not only in television’s ongoing fascination with people breaking bad but in how they present themselves to the world.

In episode two of Showtime’s Super Pumped, Uber cofounder Travis Kalanick (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) slicks his unkempt hair back with a glob of gel, transforming almost instantly from scrappy tech bro to Silicon Valley tyrant. In episode three of Hulu’s The Dropout, disgraced Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried) dons her signature black turtleneck for the first time—the turning point for a con woman realizing she’s in too deep. Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” plays on the soundtrack, like a bat signal to prestige TV savants: This is her Heisenberg shift.

Breaking Bad introduced a quintessential antihero: a man crawling out of the despair of a recession-ravaged America to reclaim a sense of agency. This was in the late 2000s, at the apex of scripted dramas—once a medium fixated on maintaining likability—learning to embrace deeply flawed protagonists like Tony Soprano and Don Draper. The new explosion of rise-and-fall tales about tech moguls and entrepreneurs, which also includes Apple TV+’s WeCrashed, speaks just as powerfully to our own moment in time—the gig economy, the start-up fantasies, and the virtual world in which new kings and queens are crowned, only to be taken down.

Super Pumped is executive-produced by the team behind Billions—talk about knowing your way around repellent, powerful people—and will change shape in subsequent years as an anthology of American business scandals. (Season two will explore the tumult of Facebook.) This first installment, The Battle for Uber, follows revolutionary-minded Kalanick from the rideshare company’s astronomical growth to his ouster—and $2.5 billion payout. Cocreator Brian Koppelman says the show is driven by a simple question: “What happens when the revolutionaries become the fascists, as seems to happen over and over in these tech-disruptive companies?”

Tech is fertile ground for antihero stories, a Wild West of screens and apps. “There’s a cult around the CEO, and a lack of boundaries where it’s not just a company—you’re expected to make it your entire world,” says The Dropout creator Liz Meriwether. “That culture can lead to people in a kind of haze of not asking questions, not thinking. It really narrows your field of vision.”

Meriwether’s subject, Holmes, dropped out of Stanford in her late teens to build a billion-dollar company that promised to democratize blood testing via an industry-changing “Edison” machine. The thing simply never worked, though, and as Theranos grew it possibly endangered people’s lives. (Sick people were tested on Theranos devices, only to receive incorrect results.) Holmes was featured on magazine covers and celebrated as the world’s youngest female self-made billionaire. Now she’s awaiting a prison sentence of up to 80 years, having been found guilty of defrauding investors.

Holmes’s inner life has been examined across documentaries, books, and podcasts without definitive conclusions. “Her motivations are hard to pin down, but I took that as a reason to make the show,” Meriwether says. “I made a commitment early on to start at the beginning of her story and try to get inside her head as much as I could, to go on that journey with her.” Before Seyfried’s Holmes evolves into a tech imposter, she’s introduced as a teenager with a stifling home environment, a brilliantly ambitious college student, and an aspiring entrepreneur idolizing the unicorns who made it big.

Think of how Walter White’s arc began with a cancer diagnosis, or the way Mad Men slowly unpeeled Don Draper’s mysteriously tragic roots. These “difficult men,” as author Brett Martin dubbed them in 2013, were not without sympathetic backstories, and the formula adapts seamlessly to the aspirations of start-up culture. “Whether we’ve had that idea that we think could go on Shark Tank or we’re gunning for a promotion at work, we’ve all been in those moments of struggle,” says Lee Eisenberg, cocreator of WeCrashed, which centers on the founding of WeWork. “Seeing someone take that and turn it into a $47 billion valuation—people are fascinated by both the rise and then ultimately the demise.”

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