- Creator: Elizabeth Meriweather
- Starring: Amanda Seyfreid, Naveen Andrews, William H. Macy, Laurie Metcalf, Stephen Fry, Dylan Minnette, Kurtwood Smith, Camryn Mi-Young Kim, Bashir Salahuddin, Sam Waterston
- Eight episode mini-series. Seven episodes watched for review.
You had to know that when the salacious details about Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes came forward, Hollywood would come knocking sooner than later. Sure enough, at least two fictionalizations of Holmes’ life are moving forward, and potentially more to come. Adam McKay’s feature film version is in production, and will star Jennifer Lawrence as Holmes. But first comes Hulu’s miniseries, which is based on the ABC News podcast of the same name.
In The Dropout, Holmes is portrayed by Amanda Seyfreid, who plays her like a scared but driven woman who never even considered deviating from her career path. “I want to be a billionaire,” Elizabeth answers, without hesitation, when asked what she wants to be when she grows up.
For those somehow still unfamiliar with the story of Theranos, the now defunct company was once one of the darlings of Silicon Valley, a vision of the future of healthcare that promised to deliver hundreds of blood test results with just a single vial of blood. But Holmes, and her many backers, never fully developed the necessary tech, instead choosing to believe in the promises of the future, and side-stepping any and all inquiries that would show her as a fraud. Not for nothing, Holmes was the youngest female self-made billionaire in history. In January of this year, she was found guilty of defrauding her investors of millions of dollars.
The first four episodes of the eight-episode miniseries are directed by Michael Showalter, whose most recent directing excursion, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, was another tale of a female huckster. And just like Jessica Chastain, Seyfreid fully embodies Holmes’ unique mannerisms to make for a complete, mesmerizing performance. But whereas Tammy Faye was less clear on how much its protagonist knew, The Dropout makes it evident from the start that Holmes and her partners elicited a culture of fear and secrecy that prevented anyone from speaking up or asking too many questions.
Soon after graduating high school, Holmes attends an educational trip in Beijing where she connects personally and romantically with a much older Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews), who started a company and sold it for millions. Andrews slithers nicely into the villain role here, the bad cop to Elizabeth’s good cop. His initial interest in protecting the company quickly turns sinister, as every department works separately from each other, hardly anything can be done without a signed NDA, and security guards watch every move. We get the impression that Balwani is addicted to the feeling of being in charge, no matter what the endeavor.
As with any nonfiction adaptation, the question remains of whether the fictionalization brings anything new to the table – especially when the show plays pretty faithfully to its source material. Series creator Elizabeth Meriweather definitely knows which details to focus on to maximize drama, and effectively splits time between Elizabeth and her disgruntled employees that eventually abandoned the ship. The show’s cast is rounded out nicely by actors like William H. Macy, Laurie Metcalf, Stephen Fry, Dylan Minnette, Kurtwood Smith, Camryn Mi-Young Kim, Bashir Salahuddin, and Sam Waterston (plus a scene-stealing LisaGay Hamilton as the editor of the Washington Post).
But is Elizabeth portrayed as sympathetic? The show’s writing, and Seyfreid’s performance, portray her as perpetually nervous that the truth will come out, endlessly conflicted about either coming clean or sticking to her guns. Every time we start to feel like Elizabeth is about to crack, some development comes along that saves her and reinforces her beliefs. If nothing else, The Dropout nails the bizarre cultural that permeates throughout Silicon Valley which The Social Network encapsulated so perfectly; from the “brainstorm room”, to company-wide gatherings that double as pep rallies, to the god-like status that tech CEOs cultivate (it’s no secret that Holmes modeled her signature look off of her hero, Steve Jobs).
There have been plenty of adaptations of real-life films and shows pop up recently that serve to re-evaluate or re-contextualize events that we thought we had fully grasped – not to mention the increasingly bloated sub-genre that deals exclusively with tech startups. It’s easy to lump The Dropout into that batch. Though the show thankfully never minces words about how guilty Holmes ultimately was, it stands out amongst its competition because it paints her as a fully-formed person, molded by circumstance and never given the chance to back down.
The first 3 episodes of The Dropout are available now on Hulu with subsequent episodes released weekly.