Hulu’s eight-episode The Dropout, Disney’s adaptation of the ABC podcast series of the same name, is the latest docuseries in a string of stories about tech, startups and wealth gone wrong.
The Dropout stars Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes, founder of the fraudulent blood-testing startup Theranos. Holmes is currently awaiting sentencing after being found guilty of committing fraud.
It is a riches-to-riches rise to becoming one of the world’s youngest billionaires and the delight in watching her fall that is the fascination for audiences.
The Dropout can be bracketed with Apple TV+’s upcoming WeCrashed series, based on the podcast WeCrashed: The Rise and Fall of WeWork, and Showtime’s recent Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Uma Thurman. Netflix and Hulu both released Fyre Fest documentaries about the “fake it and they will come” influencer-hyped music non-event, and Netflix’s Inventing Anna, a true story about a young female scam artist, became on of the streamer’s most-watched series.
READ MORE: Confidence Tricks: Why Scams and Scandals Make for Enticing TV (NAB Amplify)
READ MORE: “WeWork” Director Jed Rothstein on Telling a Modern Icarus Fable | Source: Collider (NAB Amplify)
Netflix viewers spent 196 million hours, according to Deadline, watching Inventing Anna between February 14 and 20, making it Netflix’s most-watched English-language series over a one week period.
READ MORE: ‘Inventing Anna’ Ratings Netflix 196M Hours (Deadline)
“These online streamers keep churning out this content because they know we will watch,” says TechCrunch. “We’re desperate and eager to understand how people can be so corrupted by the promise of money and fame that they will sacrifice their morality.”
READ MORE: Hulu’s Theranos docu-series ‘The Dropout’ is like watching a car crash in slow motion (TechCrunch)
Commentators, including Nancy Jo Sales in The Guardian, explain the vogue, writing “social media has turned us all into scammers, as well as victims of the constant scam being perpetrated on us by tech companies. They promise they will connect us to the world — but their core profit-making plan is actually the tracking and selling of our data. Essentially, we live in the age of the scam.”
READ MORE: From Anna Delvey to the Tinder Swindler: why do we fall for the TV scammers? (The Guardian)
The Dropout is not even the first longform examination of Theranos. It’s already been the subject of a major podcast, a book, and an Alex Gibney documentary, and a feature directed by Adam McKay and starring Jennifer Lawrence called Bad Blood is coming soon to AppleTV+.
READ MORE: HBO’s ‘The Inventor’ explores how Theranos happened, but not why (Engadget)
When Searchlight Television first approached showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether to work on the project, she was a little skeptical. “I was just like, ‘What is the point of doing a limited series?’” she told The Daily Beast. “Why would we tell this story again? What would I bring to it?”
The solution, she decided, would be to “engage with the story on a more human level.” In Holmes’ biography, the showrunner said, she saw “the story of a young woman in a position of power really kind of struggling with it and trying to figure out who she is in the middle of that.
“That felt like a story that hadn’t been told as much on television,” she said. “You know, it’s not the kind of glossy girlboss, female empowerment version of a female CEO.”
READ MORE: ‘The Dropout’ Creator Breaks Down the Humanity (and Inhumanity) of Elizabeth Holmes (The Daily Beast)
Over time, the show’s Elizabeth figures out how to harness her industry’s tokenization of women to her advantage — a brilliant encapsulation of the way that women, too (especially white women), can perpetuate misogyny once they decide it’s to their advantage to do so.
There’s another example of this in recent BBC drama Rules Of The Game, a thriller series set in a mundane office.
READ MORE: Rules of the Game review – Maxine Peake is barnstorming in a rich, meaty murder mystery (The Guardian)
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Michael Showalter, who directed four episodes of The Dropout, told Collider, “There is a part of [Holmes] that’s worthy… she was a young woman trying to make a mark in a male-dominated industry, and that that’s something to celebrate. Let’s celebrate that she had this vision, but let’s also see where her integrity went off-road. Let’s see if, as a culture, we can all say that integrity should have a role and a place in the way we do business and the way we treat each other as individuals.”
READ MORE: ‘The Dropout’: Michael Showalter on the Appeal of Directing Reality-Based Stories and Working With Amanda Seyfried (Collider)
The “romance” between Holmes and Sunny Balwani, the executive 18 years her senior, was among the most creatively dramatized because the couple kept their private affairs so well hidden. Holmes would later allege in court that he routinely abused her over their 12-year relationship.
“There’s so little information about what that relationship actually was — which, you know, was part of their relationship because they kept it secret for 12 years,” Meriwether said to The Daily Beast. “It felt like such a huge part of the story that we knew very little about. We learned more in her trial, and I think we’re going to learn even more in his trial, which is coming up. But it’s a really complex, toxic relationship.”
One of the things the show serves to highlight is how much of an easy ride Theranos got from investors and the press.
“Despite refusing to justify any element of its technology, it took far too long for regulators and officials to really interrogate what was going on,” says Engadget. “I mean, in 2015, Holmes was appointed to the board of fellows at Harvard Medical School! The scale of the fraud, the scale of the lie, became so great that most people just felt that they had to believe it.”
The Dropout ask questions, like how Holmes got “wellness centers” into a chain the size of Walgreens when her tech didn’t work.
“How does that happen?” asks NPR. “Surely, they had the capacity to determine that she wasn’t able to simply put a machine in front of them, prick a finger, and have it perform routine bloodwork.”
The question is not why nobody knew; it’s why the people who knew were not able to stop Holmes’ ascent sooner.
NPR concludes of the show’s depiction, “that more than anything, she’s protected by other people’s greed and pride. Once she has investors who have given her their money, they naturally aren’t eager to hear that the tech is no good, or to have the word spread that the tech is no good. She was deceiving people because she especially wanted to do something huge that would make her the Steve Jobs of health care.”
READ MORE: ‘The Dropout’ dares to ask: How did Theranos get away with all this? (NPR)
A lot has changed about our attitude toward tech in the times since movies like The Social Network (2010) and Steve Jobs (2015) were released. The former painted Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as a “tragic hero,” wrote one reviewer in New York Magazine.
READ MORE: Is Aaron Sorkin’s ‘The Social Network’ the Scathing Portrait of Mark Zuckerberg That Facebook Fears? (New York Magazine)
“Now we look at these stories of startup founders with rightful skepticism,” says TechCrunch, “which makes sense in an era when Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen appears on prime-time television, telling us that Facebook prioritizes profits over public good.”
READ MORE: Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testifies before the Senate (TechCrunch)
Reviewers reserve particular praise for Stephen Fry’s performance as Dr. Ian Gibbons, the chemist who worked with Holmes at the start of her career and died by suicide during a patent dispute.
Here’s Engadget: “Fry, towering over the rest of the cast and looking every inch the crusty academic in a world of waxen silicon valley models, acts as the warm and inviting voice of conscience when things start to hit the slide.”
READ MORE: ‘The Dropout’ offers a timely reminder of the Theranos madness (Engadget)
Want more? Listen to the creators and cast talk about what interested and inspired them in the making of the series The Dropout:
Or watch The Dropout cinematographer Michelle Lawler on the Go Creative Show, where she shares the unique opportunities and challenges while filming on location for the hit Hulu series, including how character development effects cinematography, shooting on a stage vs. on location, using 200 astera tubes to light an office, tips for creating eyelights, and more: