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Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Travis Kalanick and Uma Thurman as Arianna Huffington in Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber.Elizabeth Morris/Showtime / Crave

Looking back at television in 2022 it’s easy to spot a surface trend – stories of scam artists and how they exploited the naive and the gullible. There were lofty aims in Inventing Anna, exposing the shallowness of members of New York society who were gulled by a woman who faked being a wealthy German heiress. And there was a noble search for justice in the Netflix documentary The Tinder Swindler, as it sought out a jet-setting, internet-dating scammer, while sympathizing with his female victims. Those are just two examples.

But it’s not so easy to see and acknowledge another, more ominously meaningful trend. That’s the celebration of morally dubious figures and the normalization of their appalling behaviour. Sometimes outright stupidity is being celebrated. And sometimes what is presented as a cautionary tale is nothing of the sort. The morally dubious do not a get a comeuppance; instead they become rich or glamorous, simply by being involved in events that amount to dumb or utterly obnoxious actions.

My theory is that in the search for more and more material to fill streaming services, a perspective was lost. Stories of unchecked hubris or willful ignorance became fodder to grab viewers and the traditional urge to turn these stories into lessons about greed and arrogance was put aside. So many productions err on the side of celebrating appalling people. What’s glorified is the hustle-culture of start-ups and the new-technology arena.

Best TV of 2022 so far (and where to find it)

In Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber (made for Showtime, streams on Crave) the gonzo ethics-free antics of Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are presented as a fun thing to behold. He’s a toxic human being, with a scorched-earth policy aimed at everyone from colleagues to competitors. But you’re given the impression he could be a fun guy to be around. The series never humanizes him, and for all his atrocious behaviour, yes, he was eventually removed from Uber, but a quick Google search tells you the guy walked away with a net worth of US$2.6-billion. A nice flame-out.

Then there’s WeCrashed (streams on Apple TV+), another miniseries about awful people, often told with the subtlety of a flying mallet, with many raucous, music-fuelled montages to move it along. Like other series about grotesque excess, it dwells more admiringly than appalled on the real business called WeWork and its founders Adam Neumann (Jared Leto) and his wife, Rebekah Paltrow Neumann (Anne Hathaway), both of whom are fantasists. Somehow, they find investors for a chain of shared workspaces that will “elevate the world’s consciousness.” There’s a lot of gibberish but the gist is focusing on Adam as a disrupter, not a con artist, and you’re meant to have sly admiration for him.

It’s not just the U.S. streaming services that have corralled dubious morality into stories that boggle the mind more than they educate or deliver a cautionary tale. One of the recent and bizarre arrivals on Netflix is the true-crime, pseudo-documentary series, High: Confessions of an Ibiza Drug Mule, made by some branch of the BBC.

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Arrested for smuggling cocaine, Michaella McCollum offers a first-hand account of her shocking journey through the illicit world of drug trafficking in High: Confessions of an Ibiza Drug Mule.Courtesy of Netflix

In four short episodes it tells the story of Michaella McCollum, who in 2013 tried to smuggle cocaine worth millions of dollars through Lima airport in Peru, with her pal Melissa Reid from Scotland, and got caught. The pair were known as The Peru Two and there was considerable, lurid interest in the story.

Here, the storyteller is Michaella only, and she talks about fleeing her small town in Northern Ireland for a holiday in Spain, where she then worked as a club hostess, doing more drugs than most people her age – 20 when arrested – do in a decade. She admits to being “stupid”, and she was. A spell in prison in Peru was sobering but McCollum was never unaware of her celebrity status. While Reid chose anonymity and charity work after her release, McCollum has always been ready for the limelight.

Presented as a redemption story about a drug mule who suffered and turned her life around, the series is curiously focused on how glamorous McCollum is today, looking very much the Instagram influencer she wants to be. It’s a bewildering concoction of half-truths, dubious assertions and amounts to a mindless valorization of dumb behaviour. McCollum is hustle-culture personified.

Storytelling should always be pliable, and call me old-fashioned, but the morally dubious need not be treated as fascinating narcissists to be gazed upon with wry delight. There’s a lot to be said for cautionary tales that actually result in a comeuppance.

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In My Skin is a darkly comic coming-of-age story that follows Bethan, played by Gabrielle Creevy, as she deals with the anxieties and insecurities of teenage life, along with the stark reality of a home life that is far removed from what she projects to her friends.Courtesy of CBC Gem

Finally, here’s a true gem to seek out – In My Skin (two seasons on CBC Gem) is bleakly comic and has some razor-sharp wit, and it’s a series about keeping secrets and trying to use those secrets to create art. Set in Wales (be warned, the accents are thick), it is about Bethan (Gabrielle Creevy), who tells her friends at school about her great home life. Loving parents, holidays abroad and bourgeois comfort. It’s all a lie. It’s Bethan who takes care of everything, a mere teenager, living multiple lives and weaving them together with lies. Thing is, she feels compelled to write and what we are witnessing is, in fact, the creation of a writer. The series is dense with pain and has starkly light moments. Creevy is astonishing in what is a gravely comic portrait of the artist as an anxiety-driven, self-sabotaging teen.

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