I I have to admit: I was initially skeptical of The Dropout, Hulu’s new limited series about the rise and fall of Theranos and its founder Elizabeth Holmes, the darling Silicon Valley billionaire turned credit fraudster. doomed business. I battled fatigue based on a true story. In recent weeks, a wave of TV shows has trained on certain places of tech culture, the myth of the messianic founder, the sass of a scam – especially if the scammer is a woman (white, blonde) – and the thrill of exposing a scheme largely fell flat.
Inventing Anna, Shonda Rhimes’ nine-part Netflix limited series about “fake heiress” Anna Delvey, was largely an overlong and underwhelming disappointment that cast its inscrutable subject’s ambition in too hazy a glow. Super Pumped, Showtime’s anthology series about the ruthless rise of Uber under disgraced CEO Travis Kalanick, lacquered Quentin Tarantino’s fourth wall-breaking and narration on a razor-sharp insight into the relentless search for benefit. Peacock’s Joe v Carole was an uneven and generally unwelcome rehash of Tiger King, Netflix’s curdled docuseries about violence and enmity in the world of private zoos – call it the rip-off of his personal domain – but starring Kate McKinnon in a wig. It remains to be seen how Apple TV’s WeCrashed, out later this month, handles the story of WeWork and its eccentric founders Adam Neumann (Jared Leto) and his wife Rebekah (Anne Hathaway), but he’s sure. to say he will rob or scourge by the same basic recipe of swindle intrigue.
This wave of lackluster true-con TV made me wonder: It makes commercial sense to adapt headlining scams to scripted TV, but what do we want from these shows? The speculative power of fiction allows new perspectives; dramatization can fill in the emotional crevices of a mosaic of sources – real-time news coverage, documentaries, podcasts, TV surveys and commentary. It’s always fascinating to see if an actor can pull off the transformation into a famous figure, whose ubiquity/notoriety we’ve experienced online. There is fun playing voyeur in boardrooms, yachts and open-air offices where huge sums of money change hands, lies are peddled and consequential decisions are made. But these recent shows have so far felt… offbeat, like plaster cast versions of recent history.
Except for The Dropout, which answers the scam question with a delicate and delicate balance between curiosity and consequence. New Girl creator Liz Meriwether’s eight-part Hulu series, based on Rebecca Jarvis’ ABC News podcast of the same name, traces how Elizabeth Holmes, played stubbornly by Amanda Seyfried, built a house of cards from the foundation without engaging in the feminist remodeling of antiheroes.
It’s hard not to compare The Dropout to Inventing Anna: two shows about two ambitious bottle blondes with obviously bad split ends and distinctive vocal tics (Delvey’s harsh accent coming out of nowhere, Holmes’ oddly lowered tone) who, despite off-putting demeanor, amassed weight in the 2010s through whimsy and cheeky fabrications. Unlike Inventing Anna, The Dropout doesn’t change any names or blur the timeline. His journalist character, John Carreyrou (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) of The Wall Street Journal, who appears in later episodes, is actually good at his job. (More Fraudulent Content: Carreyrou’s book Bad Blood, itself the basis of Alex Gibney’s 2019 HBO documentary The Inventor, was picked up by Apple TV for an Adam McKay movie which is, for the moment, still in development.) And while Inventing Anna seemed in thrall to its subject – the story is framed around a fictional journalist impressed by Anna’s audacity – The Dropout imagines the desperation and emotional end that underpins Elizabeth’s lies without obscuring the cost.
Take a scene in episode three when Elizabeth and Theranos chief scientist Edmond Ku (an excellent James Hiroyuki Liao) visits an oncology clinic in Nashville for a validation study with Pfizer. (The first three episodes aired last week, with the last five dropping weekly.) It’s 2008 and Theranos has built up a small reputation and a sizable war chest of investments, but no working blood-testing devices. . Elizabeth sees the trial as a worthless hurdle – “it’s not supposed to work, it’s a trial” – while Edmond rightly sees simulating accurate outcomes for terminal cancer patients as crossing the Rubicon. When a stage 4 breast cancer patient praises Elizabeth, Edmond fumbles the charade and leaves. Elizabeth follows. “These people know they’re on trial, that’s how it goes,” she says, and orders him to continue. Torn between his job and his ethics, he gives in.
It’s one thing to watch the trickster in action – Seyfried’s Elizabeth is a prodigious blend of reckless naivety, genuine greed, startling compartmentalization and monstrous self-delusion. It’s another to see how people react in real time – the justifications one makes for continuing or trusting, the struggle to reconcile bad behavior with the best person they thought they knew. It’s possible to believe, looking at this scene, that Holmes was truly convinced that the trial was going well as long as Theranos finally got the technology. It’s also possible that nothing matters as much as the appearance of success, as much as the cancer patient who takes her hand in gratitude and admiration. It may be both, but that doesn’t matter either; the real horror of the scene, what is at stake in The Dropout, is this patient – a person’s health being used as a game by Holmes, the real victim of all this investment tossed around like play money.
The Dropout allows for all of these readings and portrays Elizabeth Holmes less as a visionary pariah, as some have argued, than as a prolific imitator. She copies Jobs and Gates timelines, exerting immense pressure on herself to come up with a world-changing idea early in college, then copies again when the idea is promising enough to drop out of Stanford in 2004. She rips the Jobs’ turtlenecks. When investor Larry Ellison (Hart Bochner) tells her to “take the fucking money,” she repeats it with deranged excitement until it’s a mantra-cum-persona. An employee of the Apple Genius bar accidentally deletes Elizabeth’s data and bursts into tears, and Elizabeth, seemingly stunned by her sincerity, then channels her into a scheduled board meeting to oust her. (That’s nearly a decade before Theranos actually collapsed! The Dropout shows a prolonged and gradual metamorphosis.)
“I’m a girl who dreamed of changing the world, and I didn’t know how difficult it would be…”, she exclaims, then slips verbatim in the words of the Apple employee: “J did everything right! I followed all the steps! I was just too quick…” The board, intimidated by her tears and semblance of humility, allows her to stay and bring her “old friend”/secret boyfriend Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews) as her than COO.
Does she believe everything she says? It does not matter. Elizabeth rips off and dubs elements of the culture around her, sure, but in the logic of the show, the question of blame isn’t as pressing as the consequences, the tightening of the screws. Not all jobs in The Dropout work; there’s the entertaining introduction of iconography — Holmes gazing at himself in the mirror in his signature black turtleneck, signature green juice in hand — and heavy moments, like when his mother Noel (Elizabeth Marvel) refuses to say ” I love you” in return. But overall, it achieves what Inventing Anna, Super Pumped, and other scam shows don’t: a portrayal of a real human who has done real, costly, readable wrongs; insight into a culture that helped create and benefited from mythos; breathtaking performances of mental gymnastics and the courage to whistle. It might not be what we need from TV, but certainly much closer to what we want in a headlining scam story.