There’s a moment in HBO’s The Wire that has really stuck with me since I first watched it. At the start of the show’s final season, we watch as Detective “Bunk” Moreland tricks a suspect into confessing through a series of increasingly elaborate and ridiculous stunts, like passing off the police station’s photocopier as a lie detector. A less experienced detective asks Bunk, incredulously, if people actually fall for these tricks, and Bunk answers: “The bigger the lie, the more they believe.”
At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of that line, which also serves as an epigraph in the episode’s opening credits. It seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? After all, anyone who’s ever heard the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf would think that the more someone lies, the less likely they are to be believed! But it’s become increasingly clear to me, in recent years, that Bunk was right, and the story was wrong; for some boys, at least, crying wolf often enough can win you the American presidency … or at least get you into a hot tub with Ja Rule and a bunch of models.
Netflix’s documentary FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened shows us one such boy, Billy McFarland, a con-man whose idea of “organizing” a music festival is to pay online influencers to tell people that a festival is happening … and that’s about it. Predictably, a lot of the public reaction to the FYRE festival fiasco — and to the two documentaries about it, one from Netflix and the other from Hulu — has gleefully targeted both those influencers, and the (presumably) rich, (presumably) young people who paid multiple thousands of dollars for tickets; predictable, because there are few people who inspire more schadenfreude in our pop culture than “entitled millennials” and minor celebrities (especially when those minor celebrities are relatively young women, as was largely the case with the models and influencers whose social media posts McFarland paid for). Thankfully, Netflix’s documentary goes beyond the shameful joy of wagging our fingers at rich young people, and also explores McFarland’s appalling treatment of the Bahamian laborers, restaurant workers, and business owners who were never paid a cent for the great deal of work they put into his laughably unrealistic plans.
Which is an element of this story that may not have been talked about enough yet: how laughably, transparently empty McFarland’s words always were, even before he started “planning” his ridiculous FYRE festival. As near as I can tell from the incredibly extensive behind-the-scenes footage the Netflix doc obtained from joke-stealing scumbags F*ckjerry Media, Billy never had any big ideas, never had anything smart to say, never had anything at all to set him apart from anyone else … anything except his natural con-man’s instincts, of course. And yes, maybe it’s easy for me to say this, watching these events unfold in a documentary with the benefit of a hindsight that his employees, colleagues, and business partners couldn’t have had at the time. Or rather, they couldn’t have had it while FYRE fest was being sort-of-planned. But they should have gained that hindsight after the festival finally sort-of-happened, and they absolutely should have seen Billy for what he was by the time they were interviewed for the documentary. And they did, to an extent; no one involved in the festival — or at least no one who was interviewed for the Netflix doc — thinks that what McFarland did was okay. But the most shocking thing about this consistently shocking documentary is the fact that, by the end, some of them still seem to think he’s smart: an idea guy, a big thinker.
What should be plainly obvious to even a casual viewer of this documentary is that Billy McFarland is categorically not smart. Or not in the way so many of the people around him seemed to think he is, anyway. He’s good at what he does, certainly, but what he does — what he really does, as opposed to what he would say he does — has nothing to do with big ideas. What he does is con people. And he doesn’t do it with the suave, careful finesse of a fictional, antiheroic con artist; he’s certainly no Sawyer from Lost. He just lies. He lies constantly, relentlessly, about things that matter and things that don’t.
If The Boy Who Cried Wolf played out in the real world, Billy would tell that Boy to cry wolf more often, and more elaborately. He’d tell The Boy to take a picture of his dog and call it a wolf, tweet that picture and get it trending, maybe claim the wolf once belonged to Pablo Escobar. Would his whole crying-wolf scheme be exposed as a sham? Probably, eventually. But by then, he’d have made a small fortune soliciting investments in his WULF app, and selling tickets to WULF Fest. What would the app actually do? How could the festival possibly live up to its high expectations and even higher ticket prices? Who cares?!? The Boy is “solutions-oriented”, with the responsibility for actually finding those solutions always, conveniently, falling on someone else. The Boy can’t be bothered with such mundane details as who, what, where, when, or why; The Boy is more of an ideas guy, and if the lack of any substance whatsoever behind those ideas bothers you, well, The Boy Who Cries Wolf doesn’t appreciate your negativity.
I think Billy McFarland understands — consciously or not — what Bunk was trying to tell us on The Wire … something the current American president also understands very well. He understands that our popular culture is deeply deferential to, and easily entertained by, men in positions of privilege and/or authority, men (and yes, I’m gendering this statement on purpose) who simply assume they deserve that deference, or at least act like they do in an entertaining way. The moral of The Boy Who Cried Wolf tells us that liars will eventually be found out, and subsequently won’t be believed even when they do tell the truth. This common-sense lesson quaintly assumes that The Boy’s friends and neighbors actually care whether he’s telling the truth or not; it assumes that they aren’t so impressed by the drama and spectacle of his wolf-cries that they forget to check whether there ever was a wolf.
Tellingly, the folks in the Netflix doc who seem the most dismissive of Billy’s “genius” are those employees responsible for making a specific thing actually work, in a technical, un-fakeable way, such as the tech-workers who developed the actual FYRE app. In all the doc’s candid footage, one of the very few times Billy is directly, explicitly called out, to his face, for saying something blatantly false or doing something blatantly terrible, is during a meeting and conference call with those employees, who call out the sleaziness of his decision to no longer pay them without actually laying them off (which would allow them to claim unemployment), and straight-up accuse him of fraud (leading to Ja Rule’s unintentional debut as a comedic actor, as he splits hairs over the difference between “fraud” and “false advertising”). These were people whose jobs didn’t allow them the luxury of ignoring the nothing behind Billy’s entertaining facade. No amount of lies, paid social media endorsements, or carefully-staged photo ops can make a piece of software work; either it does, or it doesn’t.
You could argue that the same is true for a music festival — on the day of the festival, either the facilities are sufficient, or they aren’t — but Billy was never really selling people on the festival: he was selling them on the selling of it. The marketing for the product always was the real product, and it got him paid, both in investments and in ticket sales. Much like the current American president, Billy was essentially running his business as a reality show about a business, and as long as that reality show was entertaining enough, frighteningly few people ever thought to ask how the actual business was being run. Even the people behind the Hulu documentary — a documentary about how big a liar Billy is — were willing to pay him an unknown, but probably substantial, sum of money for an interview in which he would undoubtedly lie. They paid good money for the words of a man who had repeatedly proven his own words to be worthless. The bigger — and the more entertaining — the lie, the more we believe, or at least pay attention … and the more the liar gets paid.