Why Are There So Many Scammer Shows All of a Sudden?

What do we find so compelling about watching people get deceived?

March 31, 2022 7:08 am
Julia Garner in "Inventing Anna," Jared Leto in "WeCrashed," and Amanda Seyfried in "The Dropout."
Julia Garner in "Inventing Anna," Jared Leto in "WeCrashed," and Amanda Seyfried in "The Dropout."
Netflix, Apple, Hulu

Here in the United States, we love tales of self-made charmers reinventing themselves, climbing their way up from nothing to launch a new business project or perhaps just amass large sums of cash — occasionally at the expense of others. The American Dream we’ve all been sold has trained us to root for the enterprising underdogs, even when it’s not in our best interests, and our tendency to so has been reflected in our pop culture for at least a hundred years now. (After all, at the end of the day, wasn’t the glamorous Jay Gatsby really just a bootlegger with a god complex?)

And yet even though these kinds of tales have been a constant in American culture, there seems to be a rash of stories centered around scammers, grifters, con men and cheats cropping up in recent months. Back in February, Netflix launched Inventing Anna, a nine-part miniseries from Shonda Rhimes starring Julia Garner as Anna Delvey (real name Anna Sorokin), a Russian-born swindler who was sentenced to four to 12 years in prison back in 2019 for posing as a German heiress and defrauding banks, hotels and plenty of wealthy New York society types. Hulu soon followed with The Dropout, starring Amanda Seyfriend as former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes, who was recently convicted of fraud after convincing investors to throw their money behind technology that didn’t actually exist. Apple TV+ answered with WeCrashed, featuring Jared Leto as disgraced WeWork CEO Adam Neumann, while Showtime gave us Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Uber cofounder Travis Kalanick in SuperPumped: The Battle for Uber.

And those are just the Hollywood dramatizations; this month, Netflix has enjoyed massive success from two popular scammer documentaries. Bad Vegan follows the insane story of former vegan restaurant owner Sarma Melngailis and her husband, who she claims convinced her to embezzle millions of dollars from her company and funnel it over to him to impress some mysterious group of otherworldly beings called “The Family” so they would make her dog immortal. The Tinder Swindler chronicles the experiences of four women who got scammed by Simon Leviev, a man they met on the popular dating app who eventually convinced them to fork over massive sums of money to him to fund his lavish lifestyle. Next month, HBO will drop the next installment of The Way Down, its popular docuseries about Gwen Shamblin, the weight-loss guru and founder of the controversial Christian church the Remnant Fellowship (which the doc asserts is actually a cult). And of course, The Dropout and WeCrashed both pull inspiration from recent documentaries about their subjects.

Scammers are clearly having a moment on TV right now. But why? What is it about watching other people fall victim to someone else’s lies and manipulation that we continuously find to be so enthralling?

For one, there’s the surface-level “how could they be so dumb?!” schadenfreude. Some of the victims in these shows are innocent of course, but in many cases they’re pretty unsavory themselves — wealthy Wall Street types looking to get even richer by hitching their wagon to a rising star, obnoxious social climbers desperate to befriend an heiress, tech bros eager to throw money at the first blonde lady they see. There’s something deeply satisfying about watching these people who have built their wealth into their very identity be separated from their money by a mediocre conman (or woman). And of course, it makes us feel good about our own intelligence. Surely we would never be so stupid. We would see through the ruse immediately. Those poor saps — how could they be so naive?

Scammer shows also have the somewhat unique ability of taking us on a wild, dramatic ride without making us question our morals. Most times, we know going into it how it’s all going to end — the grifter always gets caught, tangled in their web of lies, and we’re able to rest easy knowing that despite the hours we just spent reveling in their outrageous crimes and deceit, the Good Guys always prevail over the Bad Guys. Even in the rare instances where the scammer doesn’t wind up in prison at the end, the jig is up and the general public knows what they’ve done, so they can’t actively profit off of their racket anymore. The happy endings — if you can call them that — help us to feel okay about gawking at a bunch of dumb marks being misled and deriving some sick pleasure from it.

But beyond that, scammer stories are easy, unoriginal content ideas that streaming platforms know will be worth their investment. Almost all of them are based on someone else’s reporting — a popular magazine article or podcast becomes a popular docuseries, which then gets a narrative Hollywood adaptation, which then gets a companion podcast, and so on. Networks know they can milk these stories forever because they come with proven, built-in audiences. If you loved the original The Dropout podcast or the HBO documentary The Inventor, you’re probably going to binge the new Dropout series as soon as you can get your hands on it. Especially post-pandemic, streaming services are desperate to churn out as much new programming as possible; why wouldn’t they exploit a salacious, dramatic story that has already proven successful in other formats?

But what if, by playing into their hands, we ourselves are in fact being scammed? By eating these stories up over and over again, are we preventing ourselves from getting more original prestige television? Does our love of watching other people be swindled simply further enrich the powers that be at Netflix, Hulu, et al while inadvertently signaling to them that it’s okay to keep regurgitating these same tales over and over again? What’s next, a West Elm Caleb show? There will always be a new grift to grab our attention, but maybe it’s time we start training ourselves to look the other way.

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