Most people are familiar with the story (and crimes) of Elizabeth Holmes at this point. After all, the former-Theranos-CEO-and-scammer has been the subject of not only a federal grand jury but two books, two podcasts, two documentaries, an episode of 60 Minutes, and several pieces of investigative journalism. Now, just as she’s been found guilty on four counts of defrauding investors, Holmes’ meteoric rise and fall is also the subject of Hulu’s new miniseries The Dropout.
Such a pipeline is not uncommon these days — this season of TV alone will see a handful of shows like Inventing Anna or WeCrashed, based on stories so grabby they could hardly be contained to a single medium.
And like some of the other projects, The Dropout boasts a lot of big names behind it. Elizabeth Meriwether (New Girl) wrote the pilot, with Michael Showalter (The Eyes of Tammy Faye) directing more than half the episodes. Amanda Seyfried stars as Elizabeth Holmes, who’s joined by Lost’s Naveen Andrews, Stephen Fry, Law and Order star Sam Waterston, and Succession’s Alan Ruck as various members of her brain trust. (Along with plenty more high profile character actors across the seven episodes screened to critics, of eight total.)
But the delay of TV always means betting big on audiences still caring, or a show being able to provide more perspective on a story that might be well-litigated in the public eye by the time it reaches airwaves. Does The Dropout have what it takes? It might depend on how much you’ve engaged with the story so far.
If you know the gist about Elizabeth Holmes
What I know about Elizabeth Holmes basically boils down to a game of scammer Mad Libs: She dressed like Steve Jobs (on purpose?) and did a funny voice. She made an … app? And is in … jail? Hiding? Because it was … bad?
Mostly, I registered her as one of a long line of 2010s grifters-turned-media sensations, the sort that became popular fixations because we love a story where we can’t make up our mind over who the bigger fool is: The scammer in their hubris, or the rich people who let them fly so far over clearly empty promises.
So The Dropout was kind of frustrating for me at first. It’s framed via a deposition of Holmes 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 stopping to linger at the moments that lead to the formation of her company, Theranos.
This structure presumes you’re familiar with the material in a way that I am not. I did not know what Theranos did, or was supposed to do (ironically, this seems to be a big part of the real-life problem here). It’s not enough to derail me — The Dropout is rather straightforward, like The Social Network but with less style — I just don’t know how I would sell it to anyone who wasn’t already interested in the idea of “an Elizabeth Holmes show.”
Which is a shame because Holmes, as interpreted by Amanda Seyfried, is a marvelous character: sympathetic yet horrible, a moral invertebrate who isn’t without compassion but also willing to compromise on just about anything if the imagined ends seem good enough. Like Seyfried, just about everyone working on The Dropout is turning out stellar work, it’s just unfortunate that the show, like its subject, is wholly given over to tautology. The Dropout is worth your time because Elizabeth Holmes was worth the time of countless writers, podcasters, and documentarians. And Holmes, like most grifters, got that time and money because she simply said she should have it. —Joshua Rivera
If you’re familiar with the basics about Theranos’ implosion
If, like me, you were to have only read the initial headlines about Elizabeth Holmes (and maybe a stray follow up or shared tidbit from a sister well-versed in the podcast world in the years since), it’s easy to miss just how massive the lies being peddled by Theranos were. John Carryeou’s initial report in the Wall Street Journal is damning, and yet only just the tip of the iceberg.
In the years since, Holmes’ name has been synonymous with a type of obvious fraudster, fraudulent in everything from her blood testing machines to her voice. What I appreciate about The Dropout is the ways it is able (and, sometimes, can’t) pull back on the idea of her crimes being self-evident. Like a would-be advisor admonishing her for quoting Yoda seriously, that’s not really the problem, is it?
As Elizabeth, Seyfried’s performance rarely makes the CEO compelling as a people person; the script does more of the lifting than Seyfried in terms of showcasing Elizabeth as an inspirer of men (and women). Instead what she seems expert at is alternating as a victim and a power player. She is constantly churning the flimflam that can power a bullshit factory like the one Holmes was running: strategically crying in front of her board to keep her CEO seat, or quickly diverting blame to underlings.
It’s a delicate line to walk, certainly, but one that the whole show hinges on. While The Dropout is constantly localizing the impetus for the conspiracy to Holmes and Balwani, it’s careful to show how the structure of the bureaucracy provided cover the same way a funhouse hall of mirrors does. Within the bounds of the scripted drama, it’s hard to know how much of the established fact is even being ginned up.
Which is perhaps the way it should be. What The Dropout is best at is balancing the micro choices Elizabeth and Sunny (the show often localizes the full conspiracy to these two) make for their company with the macro harm of the fallout. Dropout’s Elizabeth is constantly reminded that she’s an underdog — as a dreamer, a young person, and particularly as a woman. But the show is careful to never excuse them or even allow for a world in which her deceit is anything more than a desperate bid for importance. That can take up a lot of the oxygen in the show, not always unduly. Among the excellent step-by-step play-by-play that the first seven episodes of The Dropout offer is a sense of how a lie this obscene could be supported by so many. More than most reconsiderations of scams it balances the origin of the lie without excusing it. And yet I still have very little sense of the people whose blood was actually on the line — or, frankly, if that comically deep voice was anywhere close to the real thing. —Zosha Millman
If you inhaled every Theranos story you could
Sometimes when you’re so familiar with a subject, dramatizations of it wind up falling flat since they simply retread a story that you’ve already seen told in better, more interesting ways. However, showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether and director Michael Showalter clearly understood that the point of series like The Dropout isn’t to recreate the reality of what happened beat by beat, but turn these events into art that reflects the essence of that reality.
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, never for a second did I believe the Silicon Valley entrepreneur actually did these things (though I’d love to be proven wrong). Yet these off-kilter moments perfectly capture Holmes’ famously unsettling presence and her obsession with Jobs. The Dropout clearly isn’t afraid to make on-the-nose creative choices in its dramatization of Holmes’ journey. But with Seyfried’s riveting performance as an anchor, I found myself not caring whether the show landed every swing or delivered a revelatory perspective on the founder; it was just a delight to watch.
Though Seyfried’s Holmes is a charismatic, compelling lead, The Dropout never asks viewers to fully sympathize with her — nor does it let them forget how dangerous the frauds she perpetrated were. As the series progresses, The Dropout dedicates increasing time to its supporting cast, a decision that highlights the scale of those impacted by Holmes’ actions and the very real cost of her con. This is particularly true for the show’s depiction of Ian Gibbons (Stephen Fry), Theranos’ chief scientist, who took his own life the night before he was scheduled to testify in court about the company’s “revolutionary” blood-testing tech, which in reality never worked. Fry is absolutely heartbreaking as Gibbons, and delivers one of many outstanding performances from the ensemble cast.
By embracing both the absurdity and gravity of Holmes’ story, The Dropout delivers a stylistic, tightly paced, and at times surprisingly comedic examination of the rise and fall of Theranos. It may not add anything to what I already knew about Holmes, but it doesn’t feel like a predictable rehash of previous reporting, either. At a time ripe with retellings of stranger-than-fiction fraudsters and CEO flameouts, The Dropout stands out as one of the few worth watching — even for those already intimately familiar with the case. —Sadie Gennis
The first three episodes of The Dropout are now airing on Hulu. New episodes drop weekly every Thursday.