Students of history learn the importance of primary sources; eyewitness accounts of what people saw and did when all of this history was going on. You also learn that there’s a great need for evidence to be gathered before the twin evils of memory and self-deception color the narratives. Just as important, however, are secondary sources which can collate all of that testimony, to pick out the truth, or at least a working theory about what went on.
Take WeWork, a startup that leases office space to individuals and small businesses with an emphasis on fancy design and an open bar. As Scott Galloway once said, “they’re renting f*cking desks,” but wound up inexplicably deemed to be worth $47 billion. Now, you might be wondering how exactly that came to be, but it’s not a question that Apple TV’s WeCrashed can answer. It can, in excruciating detail, lead you through the chronology of what happened, but why it happened remains frustratingly out of reach.
The series, adapted from the Wondery podcast of the same name, charts the rise and rise of Israeli entrepreneur Adam Neumann (Jared Leto). It charts Neumann’s life, from his stumbles at business school, meeting Miguel McKelvey (Kyle Marvin) and his future wife, Rebekah Paltrow (Anne Hathaway). Neumann and McKelvey launch Green Desk, a Brooklyn-based co-working company that they sell in order to repeat the feat in Manhattan under the name WeWork. Which, unlike Green Desk, makes a fairly sizable dent in the rarified world of investment banking and tech investments.
As usual, Apple asked critics not to spoil the details of the show. I can, however, safely recommend that you read the Wikipedia article to find out exactly what happened, which is a far more efficient and enjoyable way to spend your time. Suffice to say, a company deemed to be more valuable than the GDP of some countries winds up not being worth that much and some venture capital funds have to spend extra cash to clean up the error of their initial investment.
Unfortunately, the show’s biggest failure is that the above description is pretty much the level of stakes we’re expected to care about. The second is that a story that might have made a fairly breezy movie of the week on HBO drags on well beyond anyone’s tolerance to enjoy it. Third, and worst of all, is that it’s really hard to spend that much time in the company of Adam and Rebekah Neumann. Now, there are plenty of films and TV series that feature unlikeable yet compelling sociopaths as their lead characters, including the recently released Inventing Anna. And if WeCrashed had a more cohesive central thesis, or a clear-eyed view of these characters, then they might have been able to make the characters in any way compelling or pleasant. To say that spending eight hours in their company is a chore is a spectacular understatement.
Despite its never-ending running time, WeCrashed glosses over a fair number of details from the WeWork narrative. The Ballardian WeLive residential concept, which was detailed in Hulu’s WeWork documentary from last year, never gets a mention. More troublingly, the show glosses over the corporate culture of hard drinking and, reportedly, inter-office sexual assault that were widely detailed at the time. The only time this is ever looked at, it’s as a montage showing people taking their turns with each other in a supply closet between rounds of drinks. And, because of how the show frames Adam as our, uh, hero, it almost celebrates the times he himself uses drinking (and bullying) to get his own way with would-be business partners.
The funny thing about us getting a lot of these biopics so soon after events happen is that I don’t think production companies actually give a fuck if people are bored by the story. They’re banking on people hate watching.— petty mayonnaise (@NuuYawkerr) March 4, 2022
It’s interesting, to me, that WeCrashed seems to not have a clear idea of what sort of show it wants to be. If it wanted to portray the Neumanns as well-meaning ingenues out of their depth and manipulated by wider forces, it could have sanded off their rougher edges. If it wanted to make them the villains, it would have taken the sort of villain-as-hero perspective you’d find in a Martin Scorsese movie. But instead it sits in a middle ground, with silly gag bits sprinkled around what is otherwise a fairly po-faced prestige drama.
I will say, too, that viewers will notice that all of the people who backed and enabled Neumann are rarely treated critically. The people who wrote the checks, fed the beast and then threw a tantrum when it didn’t make a huge profit are always presented as well-meaning. This soft touch certainly extends toward Masayoshi Son, CEO of Softbank and head of Softbank’s Vision Fund. Softbank, if you recall, was Apple’s iPhone launch carrier in Japan, owns part of T-Mobile in the US and, most crucially, currently owns ARM, which licenses the technology that powers Apple Silicon. Sure depicting him at all is something of a risk, but he’s never presented as a fool, nor is it suggested that he was duped into investing in WeWork in the first place.
There are a couple of moments where a character is able to point at what’s unfolding in wide-eyed disbelief. But those are few and far between, again, maybe because it’s hard – yet – to see if WeWork is a success or a failure. It did go public, eventually, as part of a SPAC, and while it’s still a loss-making company, it may eventually rebound. It’s clear that you can’t pull, or land, a punch if you don’t know where your target is going to be in two or three years from now. If this story, for whatever reason, gets remade in the 2050’s, I bet it’ll be a lot more interesting than the one I’ve just sat through.
I have a sneaking suspicion that the WeCrashed’s creators were aiming for a show on the level of Succession. Unfortunately, while it does focus on “complex characters who are unlikeable worrying over their ownership stake of a company,” this feels more like a Billions knock-off. And not a good one at that.