While dramatizations of real-life stories are one of the most popular forms of storytelling in television and film, The Dropout proves exactly why we need non-fiction programming. There’s nothing that the Hulu series offers that you can’t already find out in any documentary, podcast, or book about the failed company Theranos and con artist Elizabeth Holmes. The seven-episode miniseries was based on the podcast of the same name which far more artfully and clearly lays out the problems and crimes of Holmes and her associate Sunny Balwani.
The Dropout is the latest in a slew of troubling dramatizations of Silicon Valley and startup villains that makes me wonder, “Who exactly is this made for?” Like the upcoming WeCrashed and Super Pumped about WeWork and Uber respectively, there’s hardly anything to like or admire about these abusive, self-obsessed criminals at the heart of the story. Unlike dramas like Succession that are based more around the drama of a fictional family, these dramatizations must balance between telling a balanced story and not trying to make us sympathize with someone who ruined countless lives.
If you are not familiar with the story of Theranos, here is the basic gist. A young Elizabeth Holmes starts up a biomedical company called Theranos after having dropped out of Stanford at 19. She works with Sunny Balwani, a man she met when she was 18 who is 20 years older than her during a trip to Beijing, to build up the company. Her goal: to use just a drop of blood to test you for countless amount of medical issues. Her problem: it never, ever works. She cons everyone from Walgreens to Henry Kissinger about the effectiveness of her revolutionary machine. Her company was run with fear tactics and paranoia, employees were forced to sign countless NDAs and fired if they questioned her or Sunny too much. Meanwhile, patients were getting incorrect test results because of unethical practices.
At the core of all of this is Elizabeth. A self-obsessed, attention-seeking, power-hungry imposter who is desperate to emulate the late Steve Jobs, her literal idol. Amanda Seyfried plays the role to perfection, embodying the sort of manic energy that Elizabeth has, powered by sheer determination and belief in herself. While initial episodes might lead you to feel some sympathy for Holmes her ambition and the lack of support from those around her, it’s hard not to see her as anything other than a dictator and a con man by the end of it all. While the series is eager to show us who repressed her creativity along the way to her creation of Theranos, it dodges any explicit mention that she came from a wealthy family (she is related to the founder of Fleischmann Yeast Company) and is far from the struggling underdog.
Her right-hand man, Sunny, is played with equal skill by Naveen Andrews. Controlling, abusive, rude, and manipulative, if there are some initially redeeming aspects to Elizabeth, Sunny triggers nothing but red flags when he strikes up a bond with Elizabeth. Although you might feel some sympathy for him as a Pakistani man living in America after 9/11, again those quickly fade when he bares his teeth and shouts at the Theranos employees or blackmails Elizabeth.
The difficult part of The Dropout is that the performances are all good. William H. Macy, Laurie Metcalf, Stephen Fry, Alan Ruck, Sam Waterston, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Camryn Mi-Young Kimand Dylan Minnette are all exciting to watch. The cast is obviously packed with stars and it shows, but not even the shine of the stars can take away from the fact that this show is glamorizing a criminal. It spends its time focusing far too much on Holmes and less on the crimes at hand. Not once are we put into the shoes of one of her victims, the closest we get is hearing the almost-fatal cases that could have happened from doctors.
We spend a frustratingly small amount of time with Moss-Bachrach’s John Carreyrou, the reporter who broke the story at The Wall Street Journal. Macy’s character only brings the story to him because he has a petty vendetta against Elizabeth. All of it culminates in a rather disappointing ending that leaves no one satisfied. If you were starting to feel for Elizabeth or if you wanted justice for the people who suffered at her hands, you’re out of luck. The Dropout commits several crimes. It centers the story around Elizabeth rather than the story of Theranos, it makes ill use of its seven-episode run, with the pace dragging in the final act, and finally, it gives a painfully unsatisfying and underwhelming ending. If you’re curious about the story of Theranos, listen to the podcast, watch a documentary, read Carreyrou’s Bad Blood. Skip this show, it’s not worth the time or disappointment.