Everyone loves a story with a juicy villain—but what happens when those compelling, cinematic monsters are based on real people? Many of today’s most talked-about shows – like Inventing Anna, The Dropout, SuperPumped, and WeCrashed – focus on notorious controversial figures or real-life villains. These are fascinating figures who have captured the public imagination. But in their fictionalized form, are they being sold to us as too sympathetic, especially when they’re being played by beautiful, charismatic movie stars like Amanda Seyfried, Jared Leto, and Anne Hathaway? When our anti-hero archetypes are projected onto real people who did documented bad things, does this hopelessly confuse our understanding of right and wrong or who we should be rooting for in these still-unfolding sagas?
Everyone loves a story with a juicy villain—but what happens when those compelling, cinematic monsters are based on real people? Many of today’s most talked-about shows – like Inventing Anna, The Dropout, SuperPumped, and WeCrashed – focus on notorious controversial figures or real-life villains, like successful scammer Anna Sorokin, disgraced WeWork founders Adam and Rebekah Neumann, scandal-plagued Uber co-founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick, and Theranos CEO and fraudulent “inventor” Elizabeth Holmes. These are fascinating figures who have captured the public imagination. But in their fictionalized form, are they being sold to us as too sympathetic, especially when they’re being played by beautiful, charismatic movie stars like Amanda Seyfried, Jared Leto, and Anne Hathaway? It might seem like these characters are just another iteration of the TV antihero, a trend that’s defined the modern “Golden Age of TV” from the 2000s on. But when our anti-hero archetypes are projected onto real people who did documented bad things, does this hopelessly confuse our understanding of right and wrong or who we should be rooting for in these still-unfolding sagas?
On the other hand, as long as these stories keep their distance, they can compellingly analyze the morality of what’s really going on with people in power today. Here’s our take on the dangers of making real antiheroes too glamorous or sympathetic, but why when this kind of story is done well, it can be an important commentary.
There’s something about modern TV that makes it perfect for antiheroes: terrible people that, in spite of ourselves, we want to see succeed. After The Sopranos won an Emmy for its immoral but complex characters, TV became the medium for difficult (but strangely enthralling) men like Don Draper, Al Swearengen, and Walter White.
Walter White: I am not in danger, Skyler, I am the danger. -Breaking Bad
TV today continues to center antiheroes, some of whom are also women, and some of whom go even further in testing the line between anti-heroism and villainy. Meanwhile, we’re also seeing an increase in fictionalized stories about real people, thanks to streaming services demanding more content and executives playing it “safe” by gravitating towards known, pre-existing IP. These shows use the same structure as their fictional predecessors, but they fit real-life criminals and scammers into these narrative arcs.
So what’s the effect of focusing on antiheroes or villains who deceived real people instead of non-existent fictional victims?
In Succession, the Roys are reminiscent of real people, but their story is ultimately fiction. If you encountered someone like Roman Roy in the real world, you would probably hate him. But when you get to know him in the context of his ruthless, cruel family and get to enjoy his cynical honesty, it’s hard not to care for him. When we spend hours with a character, we naturally develop empathy for them, even if they behave terribly. But it feels different to spend time in the same way with a character who we know has hurt real people – and recently – without spending as much time on the experiences of the victims.
WeCrashed does show WeWork employees having drunken sexual encounters at work and follow them reacting to the IPO disappointment, but the season focuses a lot more on Adam’s and Rebekah’s love story, and on their relationship than on the lawsuits from real people who allege the Neumanns enabled a culture of sexual harassment and discrimination. And, especially in their early chapters, the stories can make these “characters” feel aspirational – for the way that they screw over the elites, or the way they navigate the world without caring about the typical rules and are rewarded for their boldness.
Anna Delvy: You have to work hard to get what you want. I’ve always known that. -Inventing Anna
Just as audiences feel closer to characters we spend time with, writers and producers can start to develop affinities as they devote so much time to crafting stories around them. While working on The Dropout, Elizabeth Meriwether says she empathized with Elizabeth Holmes’ trademark deep voice, because she lost her voice during the first week of work on New Girl as the result of trying to “sound authoritative.” Similarly, actress Julia Garner visited Anna Sorokin in prison to prepare for Inventing Anna and found herself impressed by Anna’s charisma. This makes sense—and good storytelling can’t center on two-dimensional, only-hateable protagonists—but there’s also a risk that any show about this kind of person may partially excuse its central villain.
The best way that these shows can avoid that pitfall is to use their villains to say something broader about the world that produced them.
In Ryan Murphy’s anthology series American Crime Story, the first season uses OJ Simpson to explore the intersection of celebrity, the media, and race. The second season focuses on serial killer Andrew Cunanan; it never excuses his behavior, but it does give us insight into how a marginalized, deeply insecure gay man fell through the cracks of society.
Andrew: For me, being told no is like being told I don’t exist. It’s like I disappeared or something. -American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace
Other shows, like The Dropout and WeCrashed, use the technique of building sympathy in early episodes to get us to invest in their stories, but increasingly alienating us from the characters as time goes on and their actions become more alarming. And this trajectory reveals the story’s ultimate message or commentary about the events it’s depicting.
The Dropout encourages us to relate to or even root for Holmes at the start when she’s a scrappy, driven misfit, rising up in a man’s world that underestimated (and also abused) her. But as her behaviors become decidedly disturbing, the story emotionally distances us from her, while devoting attention to the lives that were irreparably harmed by her reckless decisions. So what emerges isn’t the underdog feminist story Holmes may have envisioned, but a cautionary tale about taking shortcuts and assuming you can fake it till you make it in a field where a medical device either works or it doesn’t. The story continues to make interesting observations about how the boys’ club of tech negatively shaped her and added impossible, unfair pressures; yet these insights ultimately don’t excuse her. They serve more as a villain’s origin story, helping us understand how she may have hardened herself into becoming this person.
Woman: This disregard for patients’ lives was unconscionable. They hurt people. This company hurt people. -The Dropout
WeCrashed likewise is more sympathetic to Adam and Rebekah Neumann in their underdog early days. But he’s defined as an antagonist over time as it becomes clear that he cares far more about the lifestyle and enriching himself than being true to any of his rhetoric about putting “we” over “me.”
Meanwhile, the story is actually more interested in the backstory of his new-age, fiercely vegan wife Rebekah, who was never a liked figure, thanks to her reputation for doing things like firing WeWork employees for bad energy. The show explores how Rebekah reacts to sensing that she’s not loved or respected – as well as the unhealthy relationships with men that formed her. The result of this humanizing isn’t ultimately to make us like her, but to better understand how an unrelatable, out-of-touch personality can develop and come to be a liability in a position of power.
On the plus side, these stories’ connection to real events can make these factual antiheroes or sympathetic villains feel especially illuminating about our current way of life. As these characters lie their way to the top, no one seems to notice – revealing just how much of our society is itself based on scams. Interestingly, many of these real-life “scammer” stories take place within the tech industry or adjacent to it, which feels like a commentary on the dubiousness of this opaque force that shapes much of our contemporary lives. From The Social Network to WeCrashed, modern audiences have devoured stories about tech companies and the morally grey moguls who run them, underlining our distrust of and mixed feelings about the omnipresence of technology in today’s world.
Elizabeth Holmes: …this machine and all of us, are going to change the world. -The Dropout
In an interview with Collider, WeCrashed showrunner Drew Crevello said that he and his co-showrunner Lee Eisenberg told the story of WeWork “as objectively as we could, so you could draw your own conclusions.” They were also interested in the moral grey areas of this real life antihero story. As Eisenberg said, “They spent money frivolously, they overextended, they expanded too fast, and they promised employees things that they didn’t deliver. Is that criminal behavior? I don’t think it is. You’re not watching Walter White in Breaking Bad.”
Preserving these grey areas can also be an important aspect of doing justice to reality.
In an interview with Vulture, The Dropout creator Elizabeth Meriwether noted that she “struggled because Elizabeth, before the trial… never said she did something wrong, that she was sorry.” To make the story more compelling, she added a scene just before the end of the finale where Holmes is confronted by her company lawyer and then Holmes briefly seems to feel what she’s done in private- before she snaps back into what seems like a self-delusional state and puts on the armor of a new more girlish and carefree persona, “Lizzy”. A moment of reckoning is a common trait of the antihero character arc – in the Breaking Bad series finale, Walt eventually admits that, for all his rhetoric about his choices being for the good of his family, his criminal career was ultimately self-serving. But what good is a made-up private reckoning to a real person who was publically harmed by Elizabeth Holmes?
Walter White: I did it for me. -Breaking Bad
Moral debates aside, there’s the question of whether – on an artistic level – changing real details to fit a more conventional narrative arc ends up flattening out the complexities of the true story in ways that are ultimately less interesting? Part of the richness of reality is how three-dimensional and nuanced it is, and how real people contain contradictions (or “multitudes” as Walt Whitman put it.)
In the miniseries Pam & Tommy, the writers chose to soften the more shocking actions of Tommy Lee – like by not showing him engaging in any physical violence with Pamela Anderson and just mentioning that in a brief postscript. Presumably, the Pam & Tommy writers believed those details would make it harder for viewers to buy into the love story narrative at the center of the series. But in all these real-life-inspired stories, arguably leaning into the more complicated truth (and shaping it less to fit a preconceived arc) might result in more original, illuminating storytelling.
Ultimately, effective stories about controversial real-life people remind us that the people who succeed often get that way not in spite of everything that’s grating about them, but because of it. And their moments of empathizing with the villain serve a bigger purpose – of drawing us into a story that says something bigger about our world: Compelling villains (real or fictional) are always going to have a hold on our collective imagination, and it’s unrealistic to suggest stories should focus solely on their victims. But as for how we as the audience should approach these stories, we can look to the most famous TV monster of all: Tony Soprano. The starting premise of the show is a mobster going to therapy, and throughout all 6 seasons of The Sopranos, Tony attends sessions with Dr. Melfi, exploring whether he can improve or overcome his pathologies. But over time it becomes clear that Tony isn’t truly interested in changing. So as much as Melfi is clearly interested in his case and does feel drawn in by his charisma, she eventually chooses to reject Tony. When it comes to stories about real-life villains, we can follow her example.
Dr. Melfi: I don’t think I can help you. -The Sopranos