Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 2nd, 2022
The Dropout (Elizabeth Meriwether, 2022) 3 out of 4 stars.
It’s not until Episode 4 that The Dropout, a new 8-part series debuting March 3 on Hulu, really hits its absurd stride. By that point. it is 2010 and the protagonist of the show, Elizabeth Holmes, has finally, at the end of the previous installment, donned what would become her trademark black turtleneck (an homage to Steve Jobs, one of her idols) and lowered her voice. Now in full meteoric rise, she is brash and confident, her powers of persuasion allowing her to bring in all kinds of cash (which she promptly spends). It’s a good time to be CEO of Theranos, a startup that is so far all promise and no delivery. Though everyone should know better, they don’t, and at this narrative midway point, it’s good for a great big laugh.
The real-life Holmes, as you may be aware, was just recently convicted on four counts of fraud, but for a while, a decade ago, she ruled the high-tech world of medical gadgetry. Her invention—a small, box-like machine called the Edison (after another one of her idols)—would replace traditional needle-based blood tests with a single finger prick. How wonderful! As someone who does not like the feel of blood flowing out of me, I approve! The problem is that neither the science nor the tech worked. And while the whole “fake it ‘til you make it” ethos of Silicon Valley is a genuine mantra that many espouse, faking it can lead to disastrous results when we’re talking about people’s health.
Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney already profiled Ms. Holmes in his excellent 2019 The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, but that was but a single two-hour feature, with a focus squarely on what went wrong at the end. Now we have a longer treatment, courtesy of showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether (Fox’s New Girl)—and based on the eponymous ABC News podcast—with Amanda Seyfried (Mank) in the lead. The show starts briefly in 1995, then jumps to 2001 when Holmes, in her final year of high school, helplessly watches her father lose his job at Enron, thereby plunging the family into financial insecurity. She’s determined to get ahead, and nothing will stop her.
Not even Stanford, where she enrolls in 2002, but not before a summer trip to China where she meets the man, 19 years her senior, who would prove both benefactor and albatross. That would be Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews, CBS’ Instinct), eventually to become the Theranos’ COO, though not for a while. He would also become her romantic partner, a fact Holmes never disclosed to investors or board members. First, though, there are many fits and starts, some more engaging than others to watch, including her decision to drop out of Stanford and found Theranos (an amalgam of “therapy” and “diagnosis”).
A recurring structural motif shows Holmes giving her videotaped deposition in 2017, in which she is forced, under oath, to say things that she was not so honest about in the past. Then we cut to those described events and see Meriwether’s dramatization of the facts. It’s an effective technique about half the time; for the other half, it doesn’t add much.
Seyfried, however, is 100% on point, even if the scripts don’t always support her performance, at least until that fourth episode, where the writing comes together to present the woman, the myth, and the legend that so many older white men saw and were seduced by. Nobody asked any questions because they were dazzled, and the how and the why all finally make sense. Then again, if we didn’t have the more complex initial three episodes, #4 might not resonate quite so much.
Joining Seyfried and Andrews is an equally talented ensemble. They include the likes of Utkarsh Ambudkar (The Broken Hearts Gallery), Stephen Fry (Tomorrow), William H. Macy (Showtime’s Shameless), Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird) and many more. Ping-ponging between sympathy and condemnation, the show sometimes struggles for consistency of tone, yet remains always engaging, thanks to scripts that are good enough, if not amazing, and the cast. I haven’t yet watched the grand finale (Episode 8 was not made available to critics), but I’ll be there for the wages of hubris, for sure. I wouldn’t dream, at this point, of dropping The Dropout. Like a good investor, I’ll stick it out.
[The Dropout premieres Thursday, March 3, on Hulu, with Episodes 1-3, dropping one episode a week after that.]