WeCrashed, The Dropout, The Girl From Plainville, Super Pumped, Winning Time, Pam & Tommy — TV is obsessed with true-life adaptations, which would be fine if they weren't all so mediocre.

If you are a real person, there is probably a miniseries about you airing on television right now.

The new Apple TV+ series WeCrashed joins Hulu's The Dropout and Showtime's Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber in the ever-expanding genre of Silicon Valley scandal porn. Showtime's anthology The First Lady and Starz' Gaslit will explore every era of White House history not covered by FX's American Crime Story: Impeachment. Famous Hollywood tales of triumph and tragedy get their close-up in Hulu's Pam & Tommy, HBO's Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, and Paramount+'s The Offer

There's still room for old-fashioned true-crime stories like Hulu's The Girl from Plainville or Netflix's Inventing Anna, but at this stage you're more likely to find a fictional re-enactment of events made previously famous in acclaimed documentaries, like Peacock's Joe vs. Carole or HBO Max's The Staircase. In a clear sign that we've reached a tipping point, Elizabeth Olsen and Jessica Biel will both play ax murderer Candy Montgomery in dueling shows for Hulu and HBO Max. 

Wading through that deluge, Entertainment Weekly TV critics Kristen Baldwin and Darren Franich discuss the current vogue for true-life miniseries.

Darren Franich: I hate this, Kristen, I hate it all. Is that too abrupt, or just radically unfair? Forgive me. The elaborate makeup, the on-the-nose dialogue, the inevitable flashback-flashforward structure with HUGE TEXT year chyrons: It's a bit much. People have been adapting recent history into TV drama for decades. "Ripped-from-the-headlines" used to connote movie-of-the-week silliness — some wannabe film star playing whatever Kennedy — but the expanding possibilities of small-screen storytelling could have created a new golden age for docudramas and biopics. I date the current surplus back to 2016, and the astounding success of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. That FX wonder turned a potential tabloid revival into a surgically-precise examination of national horrors, powered by vitally tragicomic writing and an only-great ensemble.

It also soaked up Emmy nominations. Is that the problem? You can smell the awards-season desperation in a lot of the recent miniseries, which overdo the prosthetics and undercook their narratives to maximize look-at-me acting. Everything feels overstretched. It takes four Pam & Tommy episodes for Pam and Tommy to find out their private videotape has been stolen, and a whole Impeachment season to get to the impeachment. I'm reminded of how dexterously Chernobyl and When They See Us explored their vivid history in five and four parts, respectively. But I'm not sure those historical excavations even belong in this conversation. Famous Playing Infamous is the new normal, with various Hollywood beautifuls and handsomes portraying scandalous monsters or biopic legends. 

Kristen, you've seen WeCrashed, the latest big-budget investigation into recent events. How does it compare to other shows in this genre? Can we officially declare this renaissance a meh-naissance?

we crashed
Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway in Apple's 'We Crashed'
| Credit: apple tv +

Kristen Baldwin: In many ways, Darren, WeCrashed (premiering March 18 on Apple TV+) epitomizes all the worst things about this current crop of true-life tales. Based on the podcast (of course!), WeCrashed follows the story of Adam Neumann (Jared Leto, under a wig and a prosthetic nose), the small-time inventor-turned-CEO who razzle-dazzled Wall Street into investing billions in his shared-workspace venture before being paid millions to go away in 2019. Anne Hathaway uses no prosthetics to play Neumann's wife Rebekah, a woo-woo seeker and Adam's chief enabler.

The problem isn't with the performances. Leto is solid as the manic and menacing Adam, and Hathaway is stealthily hilarious as Rebekah — especially during her character's failed-actress phase. (You haven't seen Hathaway's true glory until you've seen her play Rebekah Neumann doing a comically bad Russian accent as Masha in Three Sisters.) O-T Fagbenle is viciously funny as Cameron Lautner, an investment banker who suspects Adam is an emperor with no clothes, and perennial standout Anthony Edwards (who played a bamboozled banker in another bloated true-life drama, Inventing Anna) pops up again as a money man here.  

The problem with WeCrashed stems from its priorities. Over eight hour-long episodes, creators Lee Eisenberg (Little America) and Drew Crevello (The Grudge 2) spend a good deal of time examining Adam and Rebekah's marriage — she longs for a fraction of her husband's messianic charisma and resents being in his shadow — while things like WeWork's toxic, sexist workplace culture are given only glancing attention. The show seems overtly fascinated with Adam Neumann's con, dramatized through pop-music fueled montages and an ever-present "Can you believe this guy?" tone. But the consequences of his financial shell-game — many of which fell on his overworked, underpaid workforce — are largely treated as an afterthought.

So. WeCrashed is a story of grotesque corporate excess, told through a flashy, multi-million-dollar TV production created by a multi-kabillion-dollar technology company. It'll likely earn Apple TV+ the awards attention it so craves, but it doesn't offer much insight — or a return on viewers' monthly-subscription investment. (My grade: C+) I don't get it, Darren. How do these true-life shows manage to be so grandly overblown and yet so dull?

Darren Franich: TV gods, save me from pop-music fueled biopic montages! Everything you're describing sounds right in line with The Dropout and Pam & Tommy, which both zhuzh up their (fascinating) facts with relentless flabbergast stylistics. Con jobs get wannabe-Scorsese montages. Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried) dances in her empty office. Actual events get a strong sitcom overlay — the principle, I think, being that the honest truth is so ridiculous that nobody will care if William H. Macy looks and acts like a comic book supervillain. Winning Time batters the fourth wall to pieces in its opening scenes. I want to support creators making bold choices. The whole staid biopic genre collapsed under the weight of sensitive cliché decades ago. But you feel corners cut in the creative decisions here. When Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) explains to the camera how poorly financed his whole buy-the-Lakers venture is, the numbers he's telling us actually appear onscreen. It's as fun as a PowerPoint presentation, and there has never been a fun PowerPoint presentation.

That grotesque excess you're talking about extends to these shows' presentation. The in-your-face techniques feel like their own con job, masking the complete lack of a there there. Pam & Tommy gets much better midway through its season, when the videotape leak finally happens. You're left wondering: Why did it take so long? I'm sure the creators would plead context or depth — we want to show you these characters before the story you know. I don't buy it. People v. O.J. Simpson started the morning after the murders; can you imagine the moral calamity of an OJ/Nicole flashback? Likewise, The Dropout teases viewers all season with courtroom flash-forwards, but it seems to be saving the "fall" of its rise-and-fall story for the finale. In an uncomfortable way, a lot of these series follow the horrible logic of blockbuster prequels, circling patiently through the saga before the saga.

The Dropout
Credit: Beth Dubber/Hulu

That may be a defensive strategy. The stories of WeWork, Uber, and Theranos are a matter of public record. Pamela Anderson and Magic Johnson both have their own documentaries coming out, which may or may not function as direct responses to Pam & Tommy and Winning Time. (To be clear, their participation doesn't immediately make the upcoming projects more essential or even honest; we don't always tell the truth about ourselves, as various tech CEOs have proven.) I'm sure the show's creators sometimes feel like they have to tell the pre-story, because the story itself has been pretty well covered already. Maybe that's just the problem! So many of these recent shows are about celebrity-level people. There's a clickbait quality that you never get from, like, one of David Simon's true-life miniseries, which drill into genuine stories and not just larger-than-life personalities. It's too early to review HBO's We Own This City, Simon's upcoming Baltimore police investigation co-created by George Pelecanos. But I will reveal that — in the episodes I've seen — nobody breaks the fourth wall or bops out to expensive-to-license pop music.

We're TV critics, Kristen, and we can't throw whole genres in the dustbin. You never know when the right creator or cast will energize the right material. Any of the upcoming docudrama series could be astounding. But lately I've been wondering if the industry's focus on these tales has carved a deep wound into the whole artistic medium of TV drama. Is anyone getting the magical feeling of discovery from these projects? Do you ever feel that the creators are getting re-inspired by their material, uncovering possibilities even they hadn't originally considered? I wonder how much better these shows would be if they were immediately fictionalized — if, say, Dropout producer Elizabeth Meriwether just made a dramedy about an Elizabeth Holmes-type con tycoon. The result might be something like the great Halt and Catch Fire, which started out as a familiar-history tech show featuring clear analogues to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, before evolving majestically towards a deeper focus on its female characters. To pick a show that gets, errr, any measurable ratings at all: consider Succession, which is obviously about the Murdochs without needing to literally be about the Murdochs.

I know that's a limp prescription, Kristen: "These bad TV shows based on true events would be better with less truth!" Frankly, they'd be better if they were better. Is there anything you vividly feel is missing from the recent spate of shows, especially compared to masterful earlier attempts to translate history into drama?

Kristen Baldwin: In preparing for this discussion, I went back and watched "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia," the Emmy-winning episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson and perhaps one of the best hours of true-life TV ever. And to your question, Darren, that episode serves as a stunning reminder of what so many of today's adaptations lack: Perspective. Both O.J. and American Crime Story's second season, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, revisited murders that were two decades old — and that distance allowed them to recontextualize the events through the lens of an evolved society. "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia" zeroed in on the appalling sexism and blatant gender discrimination prosecutor Marcia Clark dealt with in the media and the courtroom, while Versace highlighted how homophobia affected the hunt for a killer who mainly preyed on gay men.

Leap forward to today. The glut of true-life adaptations has networks and streamers grabbing the rights to any scandalous story — even if said scandal is barely a few years old. As a result, we get Peacock's Joe vs. Carole, a pricey, pointless reenactment of the Tiger King saga we all watched on Netflix in 2020, and Hulu's draggy take on Elizabeth Holmes, who was convicted of fraud two months ago.

The Girl From Plainville, Hulu's latest, is another series that would have benefitted greatly from hindsight. Elle Fanning stars as Michelle Carter, the Massachusetts teenager who convinced her boyfriend Conrad (here played by Colton Ryan) to commit suicide via text in 2014. (She was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 2017.) Perhaps in 2034, we'll have a more clear-eyed outlook on how growing up in a relentlessly connected digital world wreaked havoc on the already fragile psyche of a troubled young woman and her clinically depressed boyfriend. In 2022, The Girl From Plainville (premiering March 29) doesn't have much more to offer than a spotlight for Fanning and dutiful exposition ("If we tried this, it would be precedent-setting!") spread out over eight somber hours.

But let's end things on a positive note. NBC tried something different with The Thing About Pam, putting a campy, satirical spin on the story of murderer-next-door Pam Hupp. It's got prosthetics (can you spot star Renée Zellweger under all that latex?), it's got fourth-wall-breaking silliness, it's got flashbacks galore. But it also has something to say — about the politics of law enforcement, the blind spots in our judicial system, the dubious notion that all bad people have a little good in them. Pam works because the story of Pam Hupp sparked an idea, and the show executes it in six brisk, 44-minute episodes. There is inspiration to be found in real life, TV just needs to dig a little deeper to find it.

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