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Why documentaries and TV shows about scammers are so popular


There's a certain kind of TV show we're getting to see more and more of these days.


AMANDA SEYFRIED: (As Elizabeth Holmes) If you choose to forget certain things, do you think that's lying?

RASCOE: That's Amanda Seyfried playing Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced founder of Theranos, a company that duped patients and investors with promises of reliable blood tests from just a drop or two of blood. Stories like hers, of scammers and con artists, are taking center stage in the entertainment world. And if you are anything like me, you can't get enough of them. Alyssa Rosenberg is an opinion columnist covering culture for The Washington Post. In a recent column, she argues there's great appeal for viewers in seeing a scam play out and thinking, I would never fall for that.

Alyssa Rosenberg, welcome.

ALYSSA ROSENBERG, BYLINE: Thank you so much for having me.

RASCOE: So why do you think it feels so good to see these kinds of stories play out?

ROSENBERG: So I want to be careful to distinguish between stories about sort of any kind of con and the specific kind of scammers that we're seeing depicted in pop culture right now because I think what is uniquely appealing about Elizabeth Holmes' story, about the story of Anna Sorokin - better known as an Anna Delvey, who grifted a lot of prominent people in New York - it's not that they are just clever scammers. It's that they're scamming people at the pinnacle of American society, the pinnacle of American governance. And so when you watch them trick people, when you watch Elizabeth Holmes put one over on George Shultz or Henry Kissinger or General Jim Mattis, when you watch Anna Delvey duping investment bankers and top New York lawyers, what you're able to say to yourself is, you know, I am smarter and savvier than these people who ostensibly run the world.

And at a moment when a lot of the American system feels incredibly rigged to people, I think there is something very satisfying about that. It's cold comfort. But I think it gets at something very primal - that desire to, you know, have recognized your sense that something has gone really off the rails and that the people at the top of the American pyramid have led us there, and sort of here's the proof.

RASCOE: And sort of - it's kind of like goes by - and this is something I would hear all the time growing up. It would say, OK, well, you got book sense, but you don't have no common sense, right?


RASCOE: ...Like, the idea that these people were able to have somebody get over on them because they didn't have, like, a sort of street sense that said, this girl is lying.


RASCOE: They're lying to you - or like, you know, this man is asking you for all this money with the Tinder swindler. Like, he don't have no money. He don't work for the FBI, whoever. That's - these are lies. (Laughter) Like...

ROSENBERG: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that a lot of these stories get at, you know, the myths that people want to believe in and how far folks will go to convince themselves that they are participating in a sort of enabling (ph) story, right? I mean, look; I have a lot of sympathy for some of the victims of these crimes, right? It's - with Theranos in particular, there were ordinary people who lost money.

RASCOE: Right, yes.

ROSENBERG: There were ordinary people who got bad blood test results. But they were guilty of nothing more than sort of believing what was presented to them in a kind of mundane way. It's the people at the top who convinced themselves that they were, you know, enabling some genius, that they were smart enough to have seized on something that no one else saw. Those are the people who I think really revealed themselves by falling for some of these scams.

RASCOE: Con artists, like, have a way of compelling people through their lies and misrepresentations. But they're good at it - and getting people to, like, separate them from their money or their name or their prestige. I mean, that is the part that is fascinating to me.

ROSENBERG: Yes. And, I mean, look. We - the last president of the United States was someone who, you know, practiced kind of puffery and exaggeration for his entire career. And I think it's very easy to look at Trump and Trump voters and say, I would never be convinced by anything like that; I would never fall for anything like that. But the truth is, everybody has a mode of communication that they're vulnerable to, right? I mean, everyone has a narrative or a script that is kind of their soft spot. And, you know, whether that's the desire to be on the ground floor of, you know, incredibly groundbreaking medical technology - everyone has an area where they're vulnerable or they're less skeptical. You know, I think, as much as it's easy to look at these stories and be triumphal - and I think that's one of the real pleasures of them - it's also a little bit of a warning too, right? It's like, you know, we can tell ourselves that we never would've fallen for Elizabeth Holmes, and we never would've fallen for Anna Sorokin, but we might have fallen for somebody.


ROSENBERG: ...And keeping an eye out for that, never being too sure that you're not a mark, I think, is a sign of healthy skepticism.

RASCOE: Alyssa Rosenberg, columnist for The Washington Post, thank you for being with us.

ROSENBERG: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY GUERRERO'S "THANK YOU MK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.