Out of the bustling ecosystem of this season’s true crime dramas and docs, “The Dropout,” Hulu’s dynamic adaptation of the ABC News podcast about disgraced Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes, has emerged as an innovative creation in the sub-genre of scam TV. But when she created the series, showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether didn’t see it that way at first.
“I never really thought of ‘The Dropout’ as a scam show,” she says. “I saw it as a character study.”
Meriwether accepts the placement of her series within the overall scam genre, which has never been more popular, but says there are more differences between the myriad projects than similarities.
“The quote-unquote scam that was committed is so different in each show, and I think that may be easy to lose sight of,” she says.
It’s impossible to name every possible flavor of schemes. As with “The Dropout,” the story may feature FOMO-fueled investors blindly cashing in on a burgeoning business — see Adam Neumann’s co-working startup on “WeCrashed” and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s venture on “Super Pumped.” Both have been investigated but not found guilty of charges.
There are also one-person operations, including convicted lawyer Eric C. Conn’s half-billion-dollar Social Security scheme in “The Big Conn” and Anna Delvey in “Inventing Anna,” who served time.
Sometimes, the con artists justify their actions by claiming a higher power, as did Sarma Melngailis and her husband Anthony Strangis in Netflix’s “Bad Vegan.”
In Prime Video’s “LuLaRich,” documentarians Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason explore the (still active) multi-level-marketing company LuLaRoe, which has been accused of being a pyramid scheme. The duo were also behind Hulu’s “Fyre Fraud” doc, which captured the catastrophic canceled 2017 music festival that resulted in a $100 million class action lawsuit.
They believe that film was “the first scam culture documentary,” adding that they’re not interested in vilifying their main characters. Instead, they seek to examine the circumstances that birthed them, particularly in more ordinary environments than Silicon Valley or among the New York City elite.
“What we’ve been willing to do in our work is pull back the curtain so you can see that even the film or the TV series is part of the story and is part of this overall culture of gawking and rubbernecking at all of these different train wrecks,” Furst says. “Yet in the end, we all have egg on our own face. There’s no villains here. It’s a system.”
There may not be villains, but there certainly are characters. Whether it’s the real person or an actor transforming into them, the central figures are essential to the appeal of the genre, say “WeCrashed” co-showrunners Drew Crevello and Lee Eisenberg, who don’t identify with the “scam TV” label, either.
“People are always fascinated by charismatic, larger-than-life leaders,” Crevello says. “There’s a reason the Icarus myth has persisted — these fables and stories about hubris.”
“The rise and fall of somebody in a position of power is a very classic, tragic story,” Meriwether adds. “We want to believe myths about really successful people.”
Felicity Morris, director of Netflix’s “The Tinder Swindler,” says that audience’s base attraction to the genre stems from a relatability to the schemers’ motives, which are often to climb the ranks of society without the usual work that goes into it.
“It sort of touches on the fact that most people are working towards having a better life,” Morris says. “Then you have these select few people who go the extra mile, who push the boundaries that much further to basically get a luxury life.”
Scripted shows and docs offer contrasting windows into their respective plans. A documentary captures the facts of an unbelievable story, while the creatives interviewed here say that a successful docudrama should provide a new, elevated perspective.
“Our hope is that you have more complicated feelings on both sides of the rollercoaster, both when you’re going up and when you’re coming down,” says Eisenberg. “It’s more than just envy and then schadenfreude. If we can kind of look at the stories through a different lens, you might feel something more than just those typical emotions.”
The sudden flood of fraud dramas may also be explained as a response to the true crime documentary boom of a few years ago, and the benefits that come with adapting them as dramas.
“I think IP has recently been really popular because it gives studios and streaming services a sense of where you’re going,” Meriwether says.
Nason calls it “a great business model for studios, because essentially they get first dibs on life rights, and they get it for free sometimes with fair use.”
Conversely, Furst and Nason say they look to fiction for inspiration, citing the Showtime series “On Becoming a God in Central Florida,” which stars Kirsten Dunst as the victim of a pyramid scheme, as a reference for “LuLaRich.”
Meanwhile, Meriwether says she was inspired to venture into the true crime realm after she watched the first season of Ryan Murphy’s “American Crime Story,” which dramatized the era-defining O.J. Simpson case.
“We’re out here making work and chipping away at the zeitgeist in different ways, and we’re taking a lot of inspiration from our scripted peers, from our podcast peers,” Furst says.
Of course, there are countless examples in the history of scam stories, from Frank Abagnale posing as a Pan Am pilot in “Catch Me if You Can” to Bernie Madoff, who ran the largest Ponzi scheme in history, which was depicted in the 2016 miniseries “Madoff” and the 2017 HBO biopic “Wizard of Lies.”
Furst and Nason say the current influx of such docs and dramas can be explained by looking at the state of the world, where people present an inauthentic image of themselves on social media and a generation marred by the 2008 financial crisis longs for a logical explanation of the broken capitalist landscape.
“We basically started this huge trend in scam TV, and I think the reason is because as consumers, we’re all getting scammed,” Nason says. “It’s like watching our cultural id give us some pep talk for our own egos.”
For the time being, the trend shows no signs of slowing. Chris Smith, another auteur of the genre, is behind “Tiger King,” the other “Fyre” doc, “Bad Vegan” and “Operation Varsity Blues.”
He’s currently developing a doc about Bitcoin scammers, while another Holmes drama — starring Jennifer Lawrence — is in the works and Wondery’s upcoming podcast slate includes an investigative project about an international con artist.
Both Furst and Nason believe that scam stories can only go so far before hitting a wall, which is why the two are in the process of adapting “LuLaRich’’ as a dark comedy series — a project they describe as a mix of “The Office,” “Schitt’s Creek” and “Succession.”
But they say their documentary work has and will always focus on the ordinary people who have been harmed, rather than idolizing a scammer and giving them the blind attention they crave.
“A lot of people in this business just want to make money off of people’s pain,” Nason says. “It is seductive to be successful in my career and to take on these projects. But I also have to realize that these are real people’s stories at the end of the day, and to have really deep care for everybody involved, working on it behind the scenes and for the stories that are exposed to the public.”
And while the trend of scam TV may be fleeting, they believe their work stands for something greater.
“Justice,” Furst reckons, “is perennial.”