In a Season of Subpar Scammer Shows, Only The Dropout Is the Real Thing

7 minute read

The Dropout wants us to understand that Elizabeth Holmes is a deeply bizarre human being. Before plunging into the saga of Theranos, the notorious multibillion-dollar startup Holmes founded that fooled the world into believing it could revolutionize blood testing, the docudrama’s creator, Elizabeth Meriwether (New Girl) immerses viewers in that strangeness. The show opens with glimpses of Elizabeth at various telling moments from throughout her life—parroting a Mandarin tape on a drive home from high school; bristling at reporters’ softball questions; determinedly flailing her way to the finish line of a race that she, as a child, has lost by at least a lap. “Why does she run so weird?” her little brother demands, from the bleachers.

Maybe this obsession with Holmes’ personality sounds petty, or sexist. But here’s the thing: Most people who are likely to watch The Dropout (premiering March 3 on Hulu) already know plenty of facts about Theranos. They’ve read John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, watched the HBO documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, listened to the ABC News podcast from which The Dropout was adapted, or simply followed seven years’ worth of news about the company’s downfall. Meriwether seems to understand what the creators of many other recent docudramas, from Showtime’s Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber to Hulu’s own Dopesick, do not—that no one comes to these shows for a summary of what happened. What we want is to understand the people behind the headlines.

Iron Sisters
Amanda Seyfried in 'The Dropout'Michael Desmond/Hulu

To that end, The Dropout takes on three intertwined questions: Who is Elizabeth Holmes? What could she possibly have been thinking? And how did she get so many rich, powerful, and accomplished people to believe her lies for so long? Whereas previous portraits have fixated on Holmes’ beauty, her youth, her artificially lowered voice and those black Steve Jobs turtlenecks she appropriated as a uniform, Meriwether and the show’s star—Amanda Seyfried in her most challenging and perhaps greatest role to date—probe beyond that incongruous surface.

The story begins in earnest with Elizabeth’s father Chris Holmes (Michael Gill) getting laid off from an imploding Enron, around the same time that Elizabeth is accepted to Stanford. During an awkward Christmas visit, Chris humbles himself to the family’s wealthy friend Richard Fuisz (an amusingly peevish William H. Macy), a controversial physician and inventor, in hopes of securing financial help. But Richard and teenage Elizabeth immediately clash; each is a threat to the other’s monster ego. While she’s insulted at his suggestion that she must be a legacy at Stanford, he’s taken aback by her confidence. (“I want to be a billionaire,” she announces. “First step is Stanford, and then I’m gonna graduate, and I plan on inventing a product and start a company.”) Richard’s vendetta against her begins when she replies to his condescending offer to teach her a thing or two: “Don’t you just file patents so companies have to pay you off?”

Too focused on achievement to find common ground with her peers, Elizabeth—who is so methodical, she settles on an ideal window to lose her virginity and only then starts looking for a partner—finally meets someone who seems to understand her on a Mandarin immersion trip. Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani (a brooding Naveen Andrews), a successful tech entrepreneur who’s nearly two decades Elizabeth’s senior, believes in her vision and knows how to make her feel safe. His experience as a South Asian man in post-9/11 America has left him aggrieved. In an industry dominated by white guys, his money and her WASP pedigree combine to lend the pair legitimacy. And although both their romantic relationship and Sunny’s role at Theranos, which Elizabeth abruptly leaves Stanford to found, remain ambiguously defined, what’s apparent in this telling is that their allegedly toxic symbiosis sustained the company when science could not.

The Dropout
Naveen Andrews and Amanda Seyfried in 'The Dropout'Beth Dubber/Hulu

With her fundamental weirdness as the constant, The Dropout foregrounds Holmes’ transformation from an anxious, socially inept yet laser-focused teen into a self-styled dynamo who learns to fake her way through the tech world by imitating the powerful men who initially dismiss her. In a series of wonderfully unselfconscious moments, Seyfried gives us Elizabeth psyching herself up or siphoning off excess emotion by dancing to early-’00s indie rock with fearsome intensity. Instead of getting her hands dirty in a lab whose results almost seem to disappoint, she rehearses koans—“What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”—and collects affectations that signify she’s a Silicon Valley insider, from the dudebro voice and the turtlenecks to a mercurial temper and an enthusiasm for green juice.

Seyfried resists any temptation to exaggerate these eccentricities; the performance is subtle enough to surface human vulnerabilities that might otherwise have been obscured by the character’s behavior. It’s a refreshing choice, at a time when so many docudramas delight in mocking their subjects. Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes a fine transformation into Super Pumped’s antihero, Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick, but all that comes through in the script is nonspecific Type A machismo. In Peacock’s Tiger King series Joe vs. Carole (also out March 3), Kate McKinnon’s broad portrayal of Carole Baskin is more impression than likeness. NBC’s upcoming true-crime burlesque The Thing About Pam sticks Renée Zellweger in a fat suit to play Pam Hupp and deploys wry, condescending narration that cheapens real people’s suffering.

The Dropout doesn’t exist to pile on Holmes, whose public humiliation has been ongoing since the mid-2010s. But neither does it come across as a reclamation in the style of Inventing Anna, which attempts to reframe another famous female scammer, Anna Delvey, as a snobby feminist Robin Hood. Elizabeth is less a generic woman posturing her way through a man’s world than a misfit whose drive for professional success—the only objective her brain seems equipped to pursue—knows no bounds. Rather than embody some hollow girlboss archetype, she learns to use it to her advantage. Meriwether further resists a simplistic good-guys-vs.-bad-guys narrative by demonstrating how petty some of Elizabeth’s most vocal detractors, like Richard, can be.

Old White Men
Alan Ruck, left, and Josh Pais in 'The Dropout'Beth Dubber/Hulu

By establishing who its subject is in early episodes, the show is able to weave in secondary characters, played by an extraordinary ensemble cast, that illustrate why it took more than a decade for Theranos to fail. Desperate to maintain their company’s relevance and gain social capital by partnering with the ostensibly cool tech crowd, a team of insecure, middle-aged Walgreens execs (including Succession’s Alan Ruck) make a last-minute decision to ignore their many misgivings. Political eminence George Shultz (Sam Waterston) gets taken in by Elizabeth’s patrician background and laudable mission—plus a job opportunity for his grandson (Dylan Minnette). Eventual whistleblower Erika Cheung (Camryn Mi-young Kim) initially submits to her superiors’ intimidation because she’s a working-class woman of color who fears being blacklisted. It turns out that the experiences of young women in tech aren’t monolithic.

The Dropout doesn’t escape every docudrama pitfall. It’s too long. It introduces so many characters that it can be hard, particularly if you’re not binging through the show, to keep track of which guys in suits you’re supposed to remember from one episode to the next. The dialogue occasionally errs toward the painfully expository or portentous. (“You don’t get to skip any steps,” Stanford professor Phyllis Gardner, played by the wonderful Laurie Metcalf, admonishes Elizabeth soon before the undergrad drops out to found Theranos.) Yet the show succeeds where it counts—and where just about every other recent series in its lane fails: in creating a character specific and detailed enough in her weirdness to say something new about the real woman.

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