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 billionaire Silicon Valley darling turned convicted corporate fraudster. I’ve been struggling with based-on-a-true-story fatigue. In recent weeks, a wave of TV shows trained on some locus of tech culture, the myth of the messianic founder, the gall of a scam – especially if the scammer is a (white, blonde) woman – and the thrill of exposing a scheme have largely fallen flat.
Inventing Anna, Shonda Rhimes’s nine-part Netflix limited series on the “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 on the ruthless rise of Uber under disgraced CEO Travis Kalanick, lacquered fourth wall breaks and narration by Quentin Tarantino over paper-thin insight into the relentless drive for profit. Peacock’s Joe v Carole was an uneven and generally unwelcome rehash of Tiger King, the curdled Netflix docuseries on violence and enmity in the world of private zoos – call it the scam of one’s personal realm – but with Kate McKinnon in a wig. It’s yet 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 wife Rebekah (Anne Hathaway), but safe to say it will fly or flail by the same basic recipe of scam intrigue.
This lackluster true-con TV wave has made me wonder: it makes basic business sense to adapt headlining scams into scripted TV, but what do we want from these shows? The speculative power of fiction does allow for new insight; dramatization can fill the emotional crevices of a mosaic of source material – the real-time news coverage, documentaries, podcasts, TV news investigations and commentary. It’s always intriguing to see if an actor can pull off the transformation into a famous figure, one whose ubiquity/notoriety we lived through online. There’s pleasure in playing voyeur to the boardrooms and yachts and open-floor offices where comically vast amounts of money change hands, lies are peddled and consequential decisions are made. But these recent shows have so far felt … off, like plaster cast versions of recent history.
Except for The Dropout, which answers the scam show question with a tricky, delicate balance of curiosity and consequence. The eight-part Hulu series from New Girl creator Liz Meriwether, based on the ABC News podcast of the same name by Rebecca Jarvis, traces how Elizabeth Holmes, played doggedly straight by Amanda Seyfried, built a house of cards from the foundation up without indulging in feminist anti-hero refashioning.
It’s hard not to compare The Dropout to Inventing Anna: two shows about two ambitious bottle blondes with conspicuously bad split ends and distinctive vocal tics (Delvey’s harsh accent from nowhere, Holmes’s bizarrely lowered pitch) who, despite off-putting behavior, amassed clout in the 2010s through capriciousness and brazen fabrications. Unlike Inventing Anna, The Dropout doesn’t change any names or scramble the timeline. Its journalist character, the Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who appears in later episodes, is actually good at his job. (More scam content: Carreyrou’s book, Bad Blood, itself the basis for Alex Gibney’s 2019 HBO documentary The Inventor, has been optioned by Apple TV for a film by Adam McKay that is, as of now, still in development.) And whereas Inventing Anna seemed in thrall with her subject – the story is framed around a fictional journalist impressed by Anna’s audacity – The Dropout imagines the desperation and emotional extremity undergirding Elizabeth’s lies without obscuring their cost.
Take a scene in the third episode when Elizabeth and Theranos head scientist Edmond Ku (an excellent James Hiroyuki Liao) visit an oncology clinic in Nashville for a validation study with Pfizer. (The first three episodes premiered last week, with the final five dropping weekly.) It’s 2008, and Theranos has built a small reputation and a sizable war chest of investments but no functioning blood-testing device. Elizabeth sees the trial as a value-less hurdle – “it’s not supposed to work, it’s a trial” – while Edmond, correctly, sees feigning accurate results to terminal cancer patients as crossing the Rubicon. When a stage 4 breast cancer patient praises Elizabeth, Edmond fumbles the charade and walks out. Elizabeth follows. “These people know that they are participating in a trial, this is how these things are done,” she says, and commands him to continue. Torn between his job of him and his ethics of him, he caves.
It’s one thing to watch the scammer in action – Seyfried’s Elizabeth here is a stupendous mix of reckless naïveté, genuine greed, astounding compartmentalization and monstrous self-delusion. It’s another to see how people react in real time – the justifications one makes to keep going or trusting, the struggle to square bad behavior with the better person they thought they knew. It’s possible to believe, watching this scene, that Holmes was truly convinced the trial was fine as long as Theranos got the tech eventually. It’s also possible that nothing mattered nearly as much as the appearance of success, as much as the cancer patient taking her hand from her in gratitude and admiration. It’s possibly both, but it also doesn’t matter; the true horror of the scene, the stakes of The Dropout, is that patient – a person’s health used as a game by Holmes, the real victim of all that investment tossed around like play money.
The Dropout allows for all of those readings, and paints Elizabeth Holmes less as a visionary outcast, as some have argued, than as a prolific imitator. She copies the timelines of Jobs and Gates, putting immense pressure on herself to come up with a world-changing idea in early college, then copies again when the idea is promising enough to drop out of Stanford in 2004. She rips off Jobs’s turtlenecks. When investor Larry Ellison (Hart Bochner) tells her to “get the fucking money”, she repeats it with deranged excitement until its mantra-cum-persona. An Apple Genius bar employee accidentally deletes Elizabeth’s data and breaks down in tears, and Elizabeth, seemingly stunned by her sincerity, then channels her in a board meeting scheduled to oust her. (This is nearly a decade before Theranos actually collapsed! The Dropout shows a prolonged, gradual metamorphosis.)
“I’m a girl who had a dream to change the world, and I just didn’t know how hard it would be … ” she cries, then slips into the Apple employee’s words verbatim: “I did everything right! I followed all the steps! I was just too quick… ”The board, cowed by her tears and semblance of humility, allows her to stay and bring on her de ella“ old friend ”/secret boyfriend Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews) as COO.
Does she believe anything she’s saying? It doesn’t matter. Elizabeth rips off and doubles down on elements of the culture around her, sure, but in the show’s logic, the question of blame isn’t as pressing as the consequences, the tightening of the screws. Not all of The Dropout works; there’s the distracting introduction of iconography – Holmes looking in the mirror in her signature black turtleneck, signature green juice in hand – and heavy-handed moments, such as when her mother de ella Noel (Elizabeth Marvel) refuses to say “I love you” back. But on the whole it achieves what Inventing Anna, Super Pumped and other scam shows have not: a portrait of a real human who perpetuated real, costly, legible harms; an outline of a culture that helped create a myth and benefited from it; depictions of gut-twisting mental gymnastics and the courage needed to blow the whistle. It’s maybe not what we need from TV, but definitely much closer to what we want in a headlining scam story.