This article contains a reference to suicide.
Right now, we’re living in a golden (micro) age of prestige TV adaptations depicting notable startup failures. In the first half of 2022 alone, we’re getting shows about the rise and fall of Uber, Theranos and WeWork all fronted by A-list talent. It’s a sign of how far the public’s tastes have changed that the travails of a tech, well, “tech” company is now mainstream entertainment.
Yesterday, I binge-watched seven of the eight episodes of Hulu / Star’s The Dropout, Disney’s adaptation of the ABC podcast series of the same name. It stars Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes, founder of the fraudulent blood-testing startup Theranos. Holmes is currently awaiting sentencing after being found guilty of committing fraud, while Seyfried can probably expect to pick up a number of plaudits for her performance come awards season.
The series covers the broad strokes of Holmes’ life in roughly chronological order, albeit with the odd timely flashback where necessary. We meet Holmes as a WASP-y teen with dreams of Stanford, backed by her Enron-executive dad and Washington insider mom. From there, Holmes travels to China to study abroad, where she meets Sunny Balwani, her future business and life partner. When she gets to Stanford, she’s frustrated at senior academics who tell her that her biotechnology idea is unworkable, and drops out to start her own company.
Given Theranos’ penchant for secrecy, it amused me that Disney asked critics not to reveal any “surprising plot points or spoilers.” I’ll keep details to a minimum here, but obviously it’s hard to imagine a large number of people not already knowing the bones of this particular saga. In fact, since Theranos closed in 2018, it’s already been the subject of a major podcast, a book, an Alex Gibney documentary and a long-gestating Adam McKay movie in development at Apple.
Going in, I was concerned that The Dropout would suffer the same problem as The Founder, 2016’s biopic of Ray Kroc. It’s a fine film, but one that doesn’t know if Kroc is its hero or its villain, despite the stock rags-to-riches tropes it wheels out. In some scenes, he is portrayed as a try-hard who saw an opportunity and built an empire, in others, a ruthless conman who stole the business out from under the McDonald brothers. The tonal whiplash made the film offer two competing arguments, neither of which were very well-explained.
There’s no such problem here with The Dropout, with series creator Elizabeth Meriwether always being clear-eyed about Holmes’ problems. It’s almost a minor-key parody of those rags-to-riches stories, aided by the fact that Holmes’ went from riches to, uh, more riches. Moments that, in any other story, should be triumphant are undercut with dissonant music and there’s always a sense that there’s something not quite right about all of this.
None of that would work without Amanda Seyfried’s performance which manages to sell Holmes as both a well-meaning neophyte and a cold, calculating monster. In the series' most shocking moment, Seyfried somehow makes you feel abject pity and outrage at the same time. And the show works hard to keep reminding you that this isn’t just about some elderly Republicans who got fleeced backing a boondoggle but, in a phrase repeated throughout the show; “real people.”
It helps that the show has assembled a murderer’s row of talent to appear alongside Seyfried in the series. As well as Naveen Andrews as Sunny Balwani, there’s (deep breath) William H. Macy, Elizabeth Marvel, LisaGay Hamilton, Michael Gill, Laurie Metcalf, Kurtwood Smith, Kate Burton, Michael Ironside, Nicky Endres and Anne Archer. Deserving extra praise is Stephen Fry, however, who offers some fantastic work as Dr. Ian Gibbons, the chemist who worked with Holmes at the start of her career and died by suicide during a patent dispute. Fry, towering over the rest of the cast and looking every inch the crusty academic in a world of waxen silicon valley models, acts as the warm and inviting voice of conscience when things start to hit the slide.
Disney is marketing The Dropout as a drama, but the sort of drama where the satire is razor wire sharp and the jokes are beyond morbid. Succession fans will find much to love about the series dark humor, especially the all-out fourth episode, which borrows Alan Ruck to guest as Walgreens’ executive Dr. Jay Rosan. In other places, however, the satire of both Silicon Valley and investment culture in general is far more subtle. Only in this series can two characters declare their love for each other while creating a pact for mutually-assured blackmail at the same time.
There is, rather obviously, a gendered element to the endless speculation and hand-wringing about Holmes’ motives and actions. The press never seems to need to psychoanalyze why Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are dick-wagging with their competing space projects. Meriwether chooses to highlight this disparity, mostly through the voice of Laurie Metcalf’s Dr. Phyllis Gardner – the Stanford professor who initially told Holmes that her ideas couldn’t work. She pops up several times in the show to offer meta-commentary on what we’re watching.
One of the things the show serves to highlight is how much of an easy ride Theranos got from investors and the press. Despite refusing to justify any element of its technology, it took far too long for regulators and officials to really interrogate what was going on here. I mean, in 2015, Holmes was appointed to the board of fellows at Harvard Medical School! The scale of the fraud, the scale of the lie, became so great that most people just felt that they had to believe it.
It’s funny, I’m reminded of a story I wrote for Engadget back in 2016 which just summed up John Carreyou’s Wall Street Journal reporting. But despite just citing and quoting Carreyou’s work, I was on the receiving end of a 21-email nastygram from Theranos’ then-PR representatives. The company’s image management team jumped hard on any and all criticism. When Holmes and Balwani were charged by the SEC, I emailed that same PR person to ask if they had any comment on their previous statements. It was the most delicious “no comment” I have ever received.
A common complaint of Peak TV is that most shows could be done and dusted in a third of the time actually allowed. Despite watching almost all of The Dropout over a single day, I actually felt like the show could have been longer. There’s plenty that, by necessity, has had to be cut, glossed and generally trimmed to get things down to a tight eight hours. I could easily have watched another couple hours with more context and detail, but then I’ll admit, I am a nerd. You won’t be able to, however, since Hulu is releasing the first three episodes on March 3rd and then the rest on subsequent Thursdays through the start of April. That’s a smart decision, since the first three are more or less designed as a cohesive whole, while subsequent episodes can be enjoyed individually.
Fundamentally, The Dropout is well worth your time, and Amanda Seyfried offers some truly stellar work bringing the duality of Holmes to life.
In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Crisis Text Line can be reached by texting HOME to 741741 (US), 686868 (Canada), or 85258 (UK). Wikipedia maintains a list of crisis lines for people outside of those countries.