At this point, most people are familiar with Elizabeth Holmes’ storey (and crimes). After all, the former Theranos CEO and scammer has been the subject of two books, two podcasts, two documentaries, an episode of 60 Minutes, and several pieces of investigative journalism. Holmes’ meteoric rise and fall is now the subject of Hulu’s new miniseries The Dropout, which premieres just as she is found guilty on four counts of defrauding investors.
Such a pipeline is not uncommon these days — just this season of TV will see a handful of shows like Inventing Anna or WeCrashed, based on stories that are so compelling that they can’t be contained in a single medium.
The Dropout, like some of the other projects, is backed by a slew of big names. The pilot was written by Elizabeth Meriwether (New Girl), and Michael Showalter (The Eyes of Tammy Faye) directed more than half of the episodes. Elizabeth Holmes is played by Amanda Seyfried, who is joined by Lost’s Naveen Andrews, Stephen Fry, Law and Order’s Sam Waterston, and Succession’s Alan Ruck as various members of her brain trust. (Along with a slew of other high-profile character actors in the seven episodes shown to critics out of a total of eight.)
However, the delay of television always implies a big bet on audiences still caring, or on a show being able to provide more perspective on a storey that may be well-litigated in the public eye by the time it reaches the airwaves. Is The Dropout up to the task? It could be determined by how much you’ve engaged with the storey thus far.
IF YOU KNOW THE GIST ABOUT ELIZABETH HOLMES
What I know about Elizabeth Holmes is essentially a game of scammer Mad Libs: She dressed up as Steve Jobs (on purpose? ), and she spoke in a funny voice. She created… an app? And he’s in… jail? Hiding? Because… it was… bad?
I mostly recognised her as one of a long line of 2010s grifters-turned-media sensations, the kind that became popular fixations because we love a storey where we can’t decide who is the bigger fool: the scammer in their arrogance, or the rich people who let them fly so far on clearly empty promises.
So The Dropout was initially frustrating for me. It’s framed by Holmes’ deposition in 2017, after everything has gone wrong for her — then it’s essentially a biopic delivered piecemeal, speeding through her early life just slowly enough to convey her unusual drive and unorthodox obsession with tech tycoons like Steve Jobs, and pausing to linger at the moments that lead to the formation of her company, Theranos.
This structure is based on the assumption that you are familiar with the material in a way that I am not. I had no idea what Theranos was or was supposed to be (ironically, this seems to be a big part of the real-life problem here). It’s not enough to put me off — The Dropout is straightforward, similar to The Social Network but with less style — but I’m not sure how I’d sell it to anyone who wasn’t already intrigued by the idea of “an Elizabeth Holmes show.”
Which is a shame, because Holmes, as played by Amanda Seyfried, is a fantastic character: sympathetic yet horrifying, a moral invertebrate who isn’t without compassion but is also willing to compromise on almost anything if the imagined ends seem good enough. Like Seyfried, almost everyone on The Dropout is producing excellent work; it’s just a shame that the show, like its subject, is entirely devoted to tautology. Because Elizabeth Holmes was worth the time of countless writers, podcasters, and documentarians, The Dropout is worth your time. And Holmes, like most con artists, obtained that time and money simply by stating that she deserved it. —Joseph Rivera
IF YOU’RE FAMILIAR WITH THE BASICS ABOUT THERANOS’ IMPLOSION
If, like me, you only read the initial headlines about Elizabeth Holmes (and perhaps a stray follow-up or shared tidbit from a sister well-versed in the podcast world in the years since), it’s easy to overlook just how massive Theranos’ lies were. The initial report in the Wall Street Journal by John Carryeou is damning, but it is only the tip of the iceberg.
In the years since, Holmes’ name has become synonymous with a type of obvious fraudster, one who was deceptive in everything from her blood testing machines to her voice. What I like about The Dropout is how it can (and sometimes can’t) back away from the idea that her crimes are self-evident. That, like a potential advisor chastising her for taking Yoda seriously, isn’t really the issue, is it?
Seyfried’s performance as Elizabeth rarely makes the CEO compelling as a people person; the script does more of the heavy lifting than Seyfried in terms of showcasing Elizabeth as a men’s inspirer (and women). Instead, she appears to be an expert at switching between being a victim and a power player. She’s constantly churning out the nonsense that could power a bullshit factory like the one Holmes was running, whether it’s strategically crying in front of her board to keep her CEO seat or quickly shifting blame to underlings.
It’s a fine line to walk, to be sure, but it’s one that the entire show depends on. While The Dropout constantly attributes the impetus for the conspiracy to Holmes and Balwani, it is careful to demonstrate how the structure of the bureaucracy provided cover in the same way that a funhouse hall of mirrors does. It’s difficult to tell how much of the established fact is fabricated within the confines of the scripted drama.
That is, perhaps, how it should be. What The Dropout excels at is balancing the micro decisions Elizabeth and Sunny (the show frequently localises the entire conspiracy to these two) make for their business with the macro consequences of the fallout. Elizabeth from Dropout is constantly reminded that she is an underdog — as a dreamer, a young person, and especially as a woman. However, the show is careful not to excuse them or even allow for a world in which her deception is anything more than a desperate attempt to gain importance.That can consume a lot of the show’s oxygen, which isn’t always a bad thing. Among the excellent step-by-step play-by-play that The Dropout’s first seven episodes provide is a sense of how such an obscene lie could be supported by so many. It balances the origin of the lie without excusing it more than most reconsiderations of scams. And yet, I still have little sense of the people whose lives were on the line — or, to be honest, if that comically deep voice was even close to the real thing. —Zosha Millman’’’
IF YOU INHALED EVERY THERANOS STORY YOU COULD
When you’re so familiar with a subject, dramatisations of it can fall flat because they simply retell a storey you’ve already heard told better, more interestingly. The Dropout’s showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether and director Michael Showalter, on the other hand, clearly understood that the point of series like The Dropout isn’t to recreate the reality of what happened beat by beat, but to turn these events into art that reflects the essence of that reality.
I never believed the Silicon Valley entrepreneur actually did these things when Amanda Seyfried’s Holmes dances seductively at a Steve Jobs poster in her teenage bedroom or rubs an iPod all over her face in her college dorm (though I’d love to be proven wrong). Nonetheless, these off-kilter moments perfectly capture Holmes’ notoriously unsettling presence as well as her obsession with Jobs. In its dramatisation of Holmes’ journey, The Dropout clearly isn’t afraid to make bold creative choices. But, with Seyfried’s riveting performance as an anchor, I didn’t care if the show hit every swing or provided a revelatory perspective on the founder; it was simply a joy to watch.
Though Seyfried’s Holmes is a charismatic and compelling lead, The Dropout never asks viewers to fully sympathise with her — nor does it allow them to forget how dangerous the frauds she committed were. As the series progresses, The Dropout devotes more time to its supporting cast, highlighting the breadth of those affected by Holmes’ actions and the very real cost of her deception. This is especially true for the show’s portrayal of Ian Gibbons (Stephen Fry), Theranos’ chief scientist, who committed suicide the night before he was scheduled to testify in court about the company’s “revolutionary” blood-testing technology, which never worked in reality. Fry is absolutely heartbreaking as Gibbons, and his performance is one of many standouts from the ensemble cast.
The Dropout delivers a stylistic, tightly paced, and at times surprisingly comedic examination of Theranos’ rise and fall by embracing both the absurdity and gravity of Holmes’ storey. It doesn’t add anything to what I already knew about Holmes, but it also doesn’t feel like a rehash of previous reporting. At a time when retellings of stranger-than-fiction fraudsters and CEO flameouts abound, The Dropout stands out as one of the few worth watching — even for those who are already intimately acquainted with the case. Sadie Gennis