COMMENTARY

"The Thing About Pam," "Super Pumped" and "The Dropout" make it official: It's A--hole Season!

Current ripped-from-the-headlines programming showcases unrepentant a**holes. Are they critiques or glorification?

By Melanie McFarland

Published March 9, 2022 9:19PM (EST)

The Dropout | The Thing About Pam | Super Pumped (Photo illustration by Salon/Beth Dubber/Hulu/Skip Bolen/NBC/Elizabeth Morris/SHOWTIME)
The Dropout | The Thing About Pam | Super Pumped (Photo illustration by Salon/Beth Dubber/Hulu/Skip Bolen/NBC/Elizabeth Morris/SHOWTIME)

They are as inevitable as taxes and more reliable than Punxsutawney Phil. I'm speaking, of course, of a**holes, which are now in season.

Granted, a**holes are always with us. But longer days and more sunshine helps the a**hole's malodorous behavior ripen, making it more likely that we'll encounter them in the wild. They're the guys grinning at you as they run a stop light or braying like donkeys at your favorite restaurant, making their server's life hell.

If you doubt a**hole season is upon us, simply turn on your TV. There, puckering jerks wash across our screens like the overnight eruption of tulips on otherwise ho-hum hills. "Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber" proves this from its first frame when Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Travis Kalanick, the car share giant's founder, asks a prospective employee, "Are you an a**hole?"

Kalanick posed that question to every job candidate he interviewed as a means of determining a person's suitability for his company's culture. In his view the right answer was, "Yes." At the time of Uber's rise, Silicon Valley's tech bro culture agreed with him, as did the rest of the business world.

The entire lesson of the series depicts how well that attitude served Uber until it didn't.

RELATED: Invest in Hulu's potent Theranos series

It has that in common with Hulu's "The Dropout," although Amanda Seyfried initially introduces Holmes as a visionary, not a cretin. Ambition is the seed of her hubris, and it outstrips her ability to execute her vision.

These are two of several dramas based on true stories of corporate implosions wrought by a**holery – a brand of ripped-from-the-headlines drama that plugs into America's obsession with wealthy, amoral people.

Evening soaps fertilized the ground for stories like "Super Pumped," along with the popularity of shows like "Billions," which translates 1980s style "greed is good" into the modern era with swagger, ruthlessness and a portrayal of a lifestyle driven by astronomical greed and exclusivity.

"Billions" creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien executive produce, write and serve as showrunners alongside Beth Schacter, which goes some way toward explaining why Gordon-Levitt's Travis Kalanick is treated more humanely than one would expect of a guy who intentionally bred an atmosphere rife with sexual harassment, gender discrimination and zero accountability.

Each show assumes the audience knows its main characters through the headlines their downfalls generate while guessing, correctly for the most part, that the average person wasn't monitoring how they ran their companies or the pain they inflicted upon the people who worked for them.

That part doesn't matter because we understand the larger message of these shows is, "Look at these a**holes." Along with this, and perhaps without meaning to do so, they may also whisper another nagging question: "Don't you wish you had it like these a**holes?"

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the publication of Aaron James' bestseller "A**holes: A Theory." Beyond its humorously provocative name, James' book examines everything about a**holes, defining them by behavior and type – and moreover, explaining why humans are simultaneously drawn to them and repulsed by them.

"The a**hole, as I define it," states James, "is the guy who allows himself special advantages in cooperative life out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people." A**holes tend to rise in the business world for that very reason regardless of how knowledgeable and effective they are. Once that type of person hits a certain threshold, they simply fail upward.

James also "advisedly" uses masculine pronouns throughout his book, pointing out that most a**holes tend to be men. And this is what makes the 2022 roster of TV's a**hole season stand apart like an especially flagrant shade of red on a dominant baboon's butt, since many of the primary antagonists of springtime's true stories of bad behavior are women.

I'm referring to Holmes and Anna Delvey of Netflix's "Inventing Anna," but I'm also counting Uma Thurman's Arianna Huffington in this number, since no blazing a**hole can succeed without enablers. Kalanick brought Huffington in to serve on his board at a precarious time in his reign, a turn the show signals by introducing Thurman in the fourth episode of "Super Pumped," titled "Boober."

This is a prime showcasing of Kalanick's devotion to looking the other way while his female employees are harassed and marginalized, which is also when Huffington introduces herself – and the show's narrator praises her for having "started a news and culture website where the writers didn't get f**king dick for their writing, and she went ahead and sold it for 300 million."

Thurman, in a recent press conference held as part of the Television Critics Association's Winter Press Tour, translates that detail into virtue, calling her subject "a firebrand in journalism. I've met her, and I like her. I can see that she draws a lot of controversy. She's a wall‑breaker. She's very bold, and she's incredibly brilliant."

Super PumpedSuper Pumped (Elizabeth Morris/SHOWTIME)

But in the show, she's also very much an a**hole. When Kalanick asks if she took offense at his "boober" comment to a magazine, Thurman's Huffington pooh-poohs the fuss. "Every successful person I know enjoys their success in their own way. Or they don't stay successful very long," she purrs, adding. "...No, serving yourself is serving your company. Which is serving the world!" How's that for an entrenched sense of entitlement?

Few of us can claim to be surprised by the poisonous environment Kalanick bred at Uber and Holmes cultivated at Theranos since anyone who worked in the corporate world over the past two decades likely experienced some version of their dysfunction. Kalanick's main offense is his a**hole behavior while Holmes was recently found guilty on several counts of fraud.

Nevertheless, "The Dropout" doesn't announce itself as a true crime story – not like "The Thing About Pam," NBC's contribution to the sphincter garden, which is inspired by five-time "Dateline NBC" subject Pam Hupp.

The real Hupp is currently serving a lifetime sentence for murder, but the dramatized version of her story sets her up as a complete a**hole before she's linked to anyone's death. The show's Pam, played by Renée Zellweger, crows her virtues to the captive audience inside her head.

"I'm a businesswoman. I do business all the time. Flip houses, turn a profit – I'm real successful! I'm a pillar of the community." So it goes, until her fantasy arrives at her claim of having taken care of her mom – "R.I.P.!" she whispers a tad too casually – just like she took care of her best friend Betsy Faria (Katy Mixon), who was discovered dead in her home with a knife sticking out of her neck.

"Bets had a rough go with cancer," she tells viewers, "but I got through it!"

"Dateline" revolves around classic cautionary tales of crime, but what makes Hupp such a great villain is her basic brand of a**hole behavior.

Hupp's a**holery bears a resemblance to the strain that made Joe "Exotic" Schreibvogel 2020's most successful sideshow as the star of "Tiger King," in that they're both run-of-the-mill narcissists whose aspirations extend no further than the working and middle-class communities in their orbit. (John Cameron Mitchell translates this less successfully in Peacock's recently debuted "Joe vs. Carole," but that's less the actor's problem than the script and timid directing.)

Pam is probably a sociopath; only a mental health professional can establish that. But any layman can diagnose her a**holishness because we probably have a Pam in our lives. If we're smart, we keep them at arm's length.

Zellweger, wielding all the imposing false girth afforded to her by a fat suit, barely camouflages insults within supposedly kind offers and barges in on gatherings where she isn't invited. Once Betsy's husband Russ (Glenn Fleshler) is charged with murder, Pam helpfully stacks the deck against him. It's unclear what her motives are at first, but once they're revealed…let's just say they're common and unoriginal enough to qualify as world class dick moves.

Once again, however, Pam pulls off her chicanery because she's a known factor in her small Missouri town. She's as ambitious as the local prosecutor (Judy Greer), who's happy to prance around with her upon discovering they're both Zumba lovers. Pam installs herself as the go-to spokesperson for Betsy when "Dateline" comes calling, and eventually she's so addicted to the spotlight that, according to a report on her later crime, when the cops bring her in for questioning her main concern is whether their interview will be filmed, "because I always appear on the news with Chris Hayes."

Zellweger makes it very easy to love hating Pam, but that isn't the initial reaction the other shows coax forth.

"The Dropout" showrunner Liz Merriwether doesn't shift culpability away from Holmes, but she and show's writers call attention to Holmes' eagerness to emulate the take-no-prisoners tech-bro boss approach, i.e. moving fast and breaking things, in purporting to invent a revolutionary medical device.

This alone doesn't make Holmes an a**hole, as the script and Seyfried's performance argue. No, she achieves that status by lying to the public about her device's lack of efficacy while raking in billions based on that lie. By the time Theranos is well on its way to causing real world damage to sick people, Seyfried has fired some of the best minds working for her and replaced them with sycophants, like a true a**hole boss.


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This would seem to be the main reason people are drawn to each of these shows, but the casting does make one wonder whether "Super Pumped" and "The Dropout" are unintentionally celebrating a**holishness as a necessary trait of achieving success.

Gordon-Levitt has long established his brand, as it were, of "good guy." His filmography encompasses plenty of damaged or dark figures, but by and large we associate him with men whose redeeming qualities come to the fore.

Seeing him as Kalanick is discombobulating for that reason. Kalanick is a real human being, of course, and he may have learned his lesson after all. He's also a guy who presided over a regime that spied on customers to a violatory degree and cared little for ethics or privacy concerns, which is the version being depicted on "Super Pumped."

Seyfried's interpretation of Holmes capitalizes on the actor's typecasting in roles that play up her innate lightness, making the Theranos founder's calculated sculpting of her image particularly sinister. Still, there will likely be a few folks out there taking notes in the same way aspiring a**holes might view Ye's  braggadocio in "Jeen-yuhs" as pure inspiration instead of treating the toxic parts as warning signs.

This brings us to the situational soil upon which these shows are landing. As these episodes roll out the world is watching intently to see what terrifying moves Russian's top a**hole will make next and how many people will die as a result. In America a**hole politicians are rewriting history to erase the gains of the Civil Rights movement, legalizing attacks on LGBTQIA people and their families and attacking reproductive rights.

We survived four years of an administration led by the least qualified a**hole in living memory, only to realize that instead of learning from that mistake, a huge chunk of voters want to return him to power.

On the flipside, there's also growing evidence that people are fed up with a**holes, as a new Pew Research Center survey related to the Great Resignation suggests. The top three reasons why Americans quit their jobs in 2021 were low pay, a lack of opportunities for advancement and – take note, aspiring a**hole bosses – feeling disrespected at work.

One unforgettable moment in "The Dropout" depicts an outgoing employee's leaving Seyfried's dishonest CEO with a parting shot/gift in the form of a bestselling book: "The No A**hole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't."

Kalanick was ousted from Uber and scored himself a platinum parachute to soften the landing, allowing him to remain among the wealthiest men in America. Holmes famously did not survive the disaster she spun with Theranos, facing a maximum prison sentence of 20 years and a fine of up to $250,000 for defrauding her investors. (She's believed to be ensconced at her $135 million dollar California estate until she's sentenced at the end of September.) Hupp is in prison but, like Joe Exotic, gets the satisfaction of seeing her story played by a big star.

Nobody likes an a**hole, we're told, but at times we sure do enjoy gathering them.

"The Thing About Pam" airs 10 p.m. Tuesdays on NBC. "Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber" airs 10 p.m. Sundays on Showtime. "The Dropout" is currently streaming on Hulu. 

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Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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