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The Crash of the Unicorns

Streaming TV brings us the fallen tech CEOs, up close and delightfully disgraced
(Credit: Apple TV+)

And here we have it, gather around, gather around, for the new American Dream — no no, you’ve not misheard, it is not dead, it has just been repackaged, refreshed and is still equally out of reach for most.

Lean in, and listen up: all you do is take a company with an ad agency delivered logo, and value it at whatever you would like — just ensure that you like it above $1 billion. Next, you can quickly scramble to get that initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange followed by a massive party with circus animals, prostitutes and Ketamine. And bingo, here we are. Welcome ladies and gentleman, we present the so-called Unicorn.

But unicorns tap into another American pastime, the snake eating its own tail. That eternal cycle of building up to unattainability, and then the crass hands of fate clawing and breaking it down to its very core, followed by patiently — and with pursed judgment –- waiting for the ultimate redemption story. It is as American as the flag, as Tex-Mex, as Martha Stewart. But here is the kicker — let’s face it, America isn’t a place, it’s not even a culture. It’s merely an idea (thanks Obama). But then again, so is a fucking unicorn.

And TV is a perfect place to gawk at all of this, get on that shiny roller coaster and ride it as it goes straight up, and then comes plunging all the way down. Thus enter the tech overlords for your viewing pleasure. With no less than three shows that have been put to sea.

First we have Super Pumped, about Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, on Showtime, revealing how “UberCab” (its original name) becomes Uber and bestrides the market, for better or for worse. I leave it to you to decide whether Kalanick’s resignation was due to reports of the company’s “unethical corporate culture” or simply whether the world can only handle so many douchey one-liners from a human.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick (Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Next we have Hulu which landed The Dropout, about Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes. Out of the three shows, Holmes is the only one convicted of anything (criminal fraud nevertheless) and I sympathized with her most, because I truly wished her technology worked. With just one drop of blood (whilst sitting at Walgreens) one could test for everything from antibodies to glucose levels. But hey, fraud is fraud and her now-famous black turtleneck will have to do some time.

Elizabeth Holmes
Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes (Credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

And lastly, AppleTV gives us a depiction of the rise and fall of WeWork CEO Adam Neumann, with WeCrashed. This is the show with the best opening credits with a confused unicorn wandering around their co-working space looking for the exit — I could totally relate, I also had to endure a WeWork once. With Neumann, the facts are murky but “eccentric behavior” and “drug use” and perhaps shifty disclosures, meant his board of directors gave him the boot. But don’t worry, he’s still a billionaire.

All in all, we’re in for a treat with all these big named actors, like Jared Leto (that accent!), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (that attitude!) and Amanda Seyfried (that voice! that poloneck! those green juices!) playing these megalomaniacs. I sort of wish here that we could also throw in the ring Netflix’s “Inventing Anna,” about a fake German heiress wanting to build a billionaire dollar art company in New York, but alas, she’s just less unicorn and more #vip failure who’s behind bars. But why do we care, and why is this the next range of TV in our little zeitgeist?

Maybe we need to assess unicorns first to understand our fascination. Here are a bunch of other billion-dollar plus valued brands: Airbnb, Instacart (even with ‘turbulence’), Bytedance (think TikTok), Juul, Canva, SpaceX, Stripe. Snooze. TV needs more than just a valuation or a recognizable name. We need a charismatic leading type that we can love and loathe – we need to have teams supporting either side, willing to argue to the death. Next we need a giant meteor to hit the company, to inflame it just enough that we can get some drama going. Think illegal, or we’d even settle for something juicy.

Here Elon Musk could be a player, but SpaceX isn’t going anywhere (well, besides for Mars). In fact, it has just begun and we are hanging on every inch of it. Is Pete Davidson going now, or not going? It would make more sense to send Kim Kardashian, but I guess she’s studying for her law degree. Kudos. The Trumps could never afford it, but they’d love the publicity.

Elon Musk
Elon Musk is still on top (Credit: Britta Pedersen-Pool/Getty Images)

Next we have Juul, which you can imagine could very easily end miserably, because it’s a terrible product that should be regulated more heavily (especially since teenagers are the big users). And it smells. But their founders are hardly beguiling. And who can we loathe at Airbnb? Instacart? Not TV worthy yet. Come on, give us something to watch. We’ve seen so much of Steve Jobs, in every format played out, that we truly don’t need anymore Apple for the moment. And Facebook, as Kara Swisher says so beautifully “the real problem,” had The Social Network film and if you didn’t delete your account after that movie came out, you probably never will. Also, I don’t need to see more hoodies bumbling around Menlo Park.

And to be truthful, it is compelling TV. These three shows have all the same smatterings that make up the drama — insignificant launch pads, followed by that classic lightbulb moment (filtered with dramatic music), private planes (naturally) and then the inevitable dictator comes out in all of them and lastly the concerned investors and friends wringing their hands, frantically phoning with complaints…the perfect rise and fall. Intermingled is of course all these sort of heresy, anecdotal details — did Elizabeth Holmes really steal a Siemens patent? Did Uber really “take” Portland by greyballing the authorities? Wait, the driver’s Uber app is actually watching me? Did Adam Neumann peddle his wares around town like a sad salesman, all barefoot? But that’s what makes it all so watchable, we want to know what it takes to be the cult leader, to rise above everyone else. To be a unicorn.

And here comes the hard part. We watch it because we think we’re different, we think that we would be different. We refuse to acknowledge that all versions of these three CEOs are true, because after all, isn’t it just TV? It’s not real life, it’s not my real life.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Travis Kalanick Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber (Credit: Showtime)

But that’s what makes these shows so apt (for better or for worse) — they are simply a mirror. Showing you all the beauty that you love to see, plus all the horror you’d love to look away from. So you think if you valued your company at multiple billions of dollars you would be a delight to work for, you would never defraud investors, or lie to the press or even make your assistant get your every whim no matter how ridiculous. Not you, not me, right?

We want to believe we’re better than them, that we’d do the right thing when power comes intravenously to “save the world” (their words of course). Guess what, we’re not better and no, we won’t do the right thing. So, enjoy your tail. I’d add sprinkles to mine, and it will be delicious.