From Super Pumped to Inventing Anna, Docudramas Are Taking Over TV. Here’s Why That’s Worrisome
There is a scene in Showtime’s new docudrama Uber: The Battle for Super PumpsTravis Kalanick, the Uber founder and co-founder is trying to convince Mark Cuban to invest in his startup soon to be famous. It’s 2010, a year before the app’s public launch, and the Dallas Mavericks owner is skeptical.
“I am not gonna invest in a company where you have to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to do tens of millions of dollars in revenue,” Cuban tells the younger entrepreneur, shutting down Kalanick’s hyperactive sales pitch with his own no-nonsense, alpha-male energy. Furious at the rejection, Kalanick warns his would-be benefactor that if he turns down the opportunity to invest in Uber now, he’ll never get another one. Cuban passes
Some version of this exchange did take place during Uber’s infancy; by 2014, Cuban was looking back on the decision as “probably my biggest mistake [in] investing.” But it’s hard to tell just how true the scene is to what actually happened. In a casting choice that’s reflective of Super Pumped‘s metafictional style, Kalanick, like most of the characters, is portrayed by an actor—Joseph Gordon-Levitt, going all-out in every take—while Cuban appears as himself.
Due to an increase in production of docudramas (many of which feature larger-than life newsmakers), this blurring between fact and fiction has become endemic on television. With Super Pumped (premiering Feb. 27), 2022 has already brought ABC’s civil rights drama Women of the Movement, Hulu’s sex-tape saga Pam & Tommy, and Shonda Rhimes‘ Netflix miniseries on the rise and fall of “Soho Grifter” Anna Delvey, Anna Invented. Hulu will unveil Elizabeth Holmes’ portrait soon DropoutPeacocks are also released on March 3rd. Tiger King retelling Joe vs. Carole. Before the spring is out, we’ll also have docudramas on WeWork (Apple’s WeCrashed), the ’80s Lakers (HBO’s Win Time), killer Pam Hupp (NBC’s Pam’s Best Thing), Michelle Carter’s texting-suicide case (Hulu’s Plainville Girl), Watergate (Starz’s GaslitThe making of The Godfather (Get the DealParamount+
As tends to be the case in the current, streaming-driven era of rampant programming overlap that I’ve been calling peak redundancy, there are too many of these shows, covering too many of the same subjects: tech, scammers, crime, sexual politics. With effects-heavy franchises starting to crowd out realism on the small screen, as they’ve already done in movies, docudrama has become the genre of choice for platforms looking to combine the character-driven storytelling of prestige TV with enough brand recognition to guarantee an audience. It’s a shrewd choice, financially. The returns on creativity are already declining. Docudramas are a threat to blur the line between fact and fiction at a moment when misinformation is rife.
The prototypical TV docudrama is a salacious, slapdash affair—a ’90s Lifetime movie, maybe, about a famous woman’s scandalous life. Ryan Murphy‘s FX anthology American Crime Story renovated that down-market model in 2016, with a debut season adapted from Jeffrey Toobin’s The Run of His Live: The People v. O.J. Simpson. The show was telegraphed as prestige despite its controversial subject. As the anchors, you can name actors like Sterling K. Brown Jr., Nathan Lane and John Travolta. The cast was not content with reenacting the media chaos surrounding the O.J. trial, AACSThe episode was then reexamined by a team of progressive analysts that considered gender, race, tabloid culture, as well as the impact on maligned characters like Marcia Clarke and Christopher Darden. It was an instant hit with viewers and received nine Emmys.
Murphy has been embracing the docudrama since then. AACSThe cultural retrospective on famous names such as Monica Lewinsky, Halston and others will be updated. In almost every case, the megaproducer had to continue casting the best actors, rely on nonfiction books as source material and view the past with a revisionist eye. This formula—which arrived on time for an industry-wide shift toward the miniseries, an ideal format for true stories with defined endings—proliferated from cable to broadcast, but especially among the warring platforms of streaming.
Six years on, docudrama is still a common phenomenon. Even NBC’s stodgy Law & OrderThe company launched its true-crime series, which featured a Season on Menendez brothers featuring Edie Falco. It’s a good idea, right? Docudramas attract A-list actors. Michelle Williams, in Fosse/VerdonEwan McGregor HalstonThe Emmys are now as easy as the Oscars to portray a person who has an amazing story. The more popular a topic is, the easier it will be to put a show about it. What’s likely to draw a bigger audience—a great series about a fictional tech startup or an OK one about an app used by millions of people around the world every day?
I don’t mean to imply that all, or even most, docudramas are cynical branding exercises. There have been some great ones in recent years, from HBO’s devastating Chernobyl to Netflix’s We are there for themAva DuVernay created the film and a group of young talented actors retold the Central Park Five’s story. Mrs. America, FX’s look back at ’70s feminism and its discontents, used its all-star ensemble (with big names like Rose Byrne, Uzo Aduba, and Tracey Ullman supporting a mesmerizing turn from Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly) as far more than a gimmick.
These outstanding stories have provided a fresh perspective that can only be found in fiction on historic and contemporary events. Whether it’s The People v. O.J. Simpson spending a full episode on what it felt like to be Clark, a public servant who became a tabloid punch line overnight, or Netflix’s Unbelievable weighing the impact of a botched rape investigation on a teenage victim fresh out of foster care, these shows draw out human elements of stories that viewers previously couldn’t or didn’t want to acknowledge. These shows also connect to our lives and how society works in the current. It is too quirky for a masterwork. Anna Invented at least builds a provocative argument about the title character—that she was more failed hero than sociopathic villain—while putting wealth and the transactional nature of so many interpersonal relationships under a microscope.
Yet for each docudrama with something to say, there are several more (see: Showtime’s The Comey Rule, Hulu’s Dopesick, Netflix’s The Serpent, Bravo’s Dirty John() That function as audiovisual Wikipedia Pages, heavy on statistics and names but sparsely written. Other examples include Pam & TommyTheir attempts to socially conscious revism are so jumbled that, after about six to eight episodes, the show abruptly ends without reaching a conclusion. And the few that aren’t indifferent to style can be astoundingly derivative. Super PumpedBro-critical humor and entertainment for bros is what this blog does. It owes a lot to Aaron Sorkin and Adam McKay.
One could say that the docudramas are educating viewers on current events and historical developments. The thing is, most just rehash stories that have already been widely consumed in a different format—or three. The Dropout, based on a podcast and notable for Amanda Seyfried’s sensitive portrayal of Holmes’ strangeness, follows a best-selling book, John Carreyrou’s Bad bloodThe buzzy HBO document, and the relating doc. The InventorApple developing feature film adaptations of Bad bloodJennifer Lawrence, McKay. (Then again, The DropoutIt seems so necessary in comparison to Joe vs. CaroleThis is the re-telling of a series that was originally made to laugh at strange tiger people.
Despite performances that can be thrilling to watch, in 2022, docudramas’ overlap with nonfiction storytelling poses a more troubling threat than mere redundancy. Misinformation is a growing problem on TV, as well as our podcast and social media queues. Anna Invented obliquely acknowledges this, opening episodes with a disclaimer: “This whole story is completely true. Except for all the parts that are totally made up.” The tone might be cheeky, but the transparency is refreshing.
It would be unfair and detrimental for television as an art medium to expect scripted TV shows to adhere to truth. The blurring of fact and fiction seems to be a constant challenge for our understanding of real events. However, docudramas are still being produced. Who among us hasn’t cited a tidbit about the British royals, only to realize it came straight from The Crown? How can fiction alter our reality perception? And I don’t just mean hams.
Simmone Shah reports