Hustle harder: how TV became obsessed with stories of workism

Shows such as WeCrashed, Super Pumped and The Dropout all retell recent stories of millennial work-life balance going wrong

The third episode of WeCrashed, Apple TV+’s eight-part series on the precipitous rise and fall of the WeWork founders Adam and Rebekah Neumann, gives the viewer a small taste of being a startup employee. It’s 2012, and a nameless female employee arrives for her first day; she’s given a key card, an Apple laptop, a reminder that there’s a 7pm “Thank God It’s Monday” meeting, and a mimosa. In one of the most effective montages of the series – largely because it draws attention away from the two eccentric, delusional founders who take up the vast majority of screen time – we whirl through the nameless female employee’s hedonistic, exhausting life at WeWork. Coffee, shot, staff party, sex with a co-worker in a supply closet. Adam Neumann leading employees in a “we!” “work!” call and response. Another shot, another day, pass out, wake up, repeat. Is it night or is it noon? At a desk or at a party? Doesn’t matter – she’s at work, which is life.

This ethos of so-called “hustle culture” – the idea that work is life and the self derives value through constant work – courses throughout a number of recent shows set across the 2010s. It’s most overt in WeCrashed, based on the Wondery podcast of the same name, in which Neumann literally urges workers to “hustle harder” (also the title of its fifth episode, which airs this Friday). The Theranos employees in The Dropout, Hulu’s eight-part series on Elizabeth Holmes’s fraudulent blood-testing company that was once the darling of Silicon Valley, work through the night, missing kids’ birthday parties and dinners in the name of changing the world. Same for the Uber staff in Super Pumped, Showtime’s series on Uber’s relentless, now disgraced founder Travis Kalanick, who berates employees to pursue growth at any cost (and change the world.) Anna Delvey, the scammer at the heart of Netflix’s Inventing Anna, is most chagrined that her notoriety as the “Soho grifter” overshadowed how hard she worked at the business plan that ultimately exposed her; the journalist who covers her is so obsessed with the story and its import for her career that she goes into labor in the office.

These shows, which all depict headlining stories of singularly deceitful, messianic people, have been loosely classified as true-con TV, “bad entrepreneur TV” or modern grift series in the headline-to-TV pipeline. These are all fair descriptors – all four series, which premiered in the span of a month, evince our evergreen fascination with the art of the scam (see also: recent Netflix docu-series hits The Tinder Swindler and Bad Vegan). But they are also, in piecemeal fashion, building the iconography of a certain slice of millennial experience now barely discernible in rear-view. There are the deliberately dated nods to the late 2000s/early 2010s – the music (Katy Perry gets a name drop in both WeCrashed and The Dropout), the fashion, the fascination with (and mourning of) Steve Jobs. And there is an awkward, inchoate through-line of “hustle culture” or “workism” – the distinctly American, quasi-religious belief system among the college-educated elite (myself included) that work is not merely a job but an identity, an arbiter of self-worth, and a cause worth believing in. WeWork was not a company, Adam Neumann infamously said, but a movement.

Hustle culture, like other ideologies, is amorphous. It undergirded the #girlboss, the rise of the influencer, the complete elision between self and livelihood online; there’s no clear start or end, though look around and you can see evidence of its demise. There’s recent blowback over Kim Kardashian’s advice to businesswomen to “get your fucking ass up and work”, eulogies for the heady, doomed early days of venture capital-backed digital media, the so-called Great Resignation and The Age of Anti-Ambition. These shows appeal to current prestige TV sensibilities – antiheroes, timeline jumping, expensive hair-and-makeup transformations by famous actors – but they feel distinctly of another era, a time of “rise and grind” sloganeering. They may ultimately each focus on a singularly fascinating, loathsome individual and uncomfortably posit that the people who believed them weren’t rubes, but to describe them as portraits of modern grift is an incomplete picture. Together, they compose a limited, loose and imperfect mosaic of a belief system that transcended those roped in by Holmes, Kalanick, the Neumanns or Delvey.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Super Pumped
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Super Pumped. Photograph: Showtime

They’re also part of a larger evolution of workism on television. Showtime’s Billions and HBO’s Industry, both shows about the financial industry which became modest hits in the late 2010s, hinge on the hook of watching (hot) people run their personal lives and morals through the (lucrative) grinder of a hyper-competitive, all-consuming job. HBO’s Succession, one of the most critically acclaimed shows on TV, is about a group of people with absolutely no distinctions between work, personal life and family. In a buzzy New Yorker profile about Succession star Jeremy Strong, the British actor Brian Cox, who plays patriarch Logan Roy, said of Strong’s notoriously intense acting method: “It’s a particularly American disease, I think, this inability to separate yourself off while you’re doing the job.” That’s a good summary of Apple TV+’s current sleeper hit Severance, in which characters undergo a brain procedure that literally separates their work and life selves. Severance is, as the Ringer’s Alison Herman argues, the eerie latest entry in the genre of “uncanny office” shows like Corporate, Better Off Ted or Loki. Call it the mystery-box inverse to the hustle culture show – instead of blurring the lines over an 18-hour day, Severance is an extreme allegory of work-life balance that also points to something sinister in the corporate office.

Which is not to say that all the hustle culture shows work as effective critiques, or as entertainment worth sinking 8-10 hours into. Inventing Anna, as I’ve written previously, is both too credulous of Anna and yet not interested enough in her. In a strange and unrewarding decision, the modern workplace soap master Shonda Rhimes turned the scammer story into a newsroom drama in which a fictionalized journalist, Vivian Kent (loosely based on Jessica Pressler, the New York Magazine writer who reported the definitive Anna Delvey feature in 2018) obsesses over saving her career through Anna’s story. Super Pumped, created by the Billions co-creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien, matches Uber founder Travis Kalanick’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)’s carnivorous business leadership – growth at all costs – with gonzo flourishes (narration from Quentin Tarantino, breaking the fourth wall) that ultimately underscore his self-importance. The Dropout is by far the best of these shows, the only one to nail the tricky balance between the thrill of the scammer and the devastation of their lies.

Naveen Andrews and Amanda Seyfried in The Dropout
Naveen Andrews and Amanda Seyfried in The Dropout. Photograph: Beth Dubber/AP

WeCrashed, created by Drew Crevello and Lee Eisenberg (a writer, producer and director on The Office), has a better grasp on the absurdity of the office setting than one might expect and a compellingly toxic duo in Anne Hathaway’s Rebekah and Jared Leto’s Adam, but comparatively frivolous stakes. Adam seems to convince and succeed by the inexorable rising tide of plot; valuation numbers are batted around with too many zeros to feel consequential. The Hollywood Reporter’s Angie Han called the series “amusing but ultimately inessential”, and I cannot think of a more accurate description.

Part of the appeal and the issue with the hustle culture shows is that they depict a history that is too recent to see clearly and yet too distant, especially since the pandemic cleaved the timeline for many viewers, to feel of the zeitgeist. Still, there is something unsettling about watching WeCrashed, a series which depicts an idea in extremity – the neon “hustle harder” signs and “do what you love” mugs are hustle culture at its most explicit – that is barely out of date. (Full disclosure: in 2019, I worked as a member of the Guardian US at a New York WeWork office.) The Thank God It’s Monday parties and billion-dollar valuations are supposed to seem ridiculous in this 2022 show, and they always were. The haphazard results of these hustle culture shows reflect a culture just beginning to understand that.


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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