☆☆☆ 1/2 (Hulu)
When the Elizabeth Holmes scandal erupted, Hollywood immediately smelled the blood in the water. In real life, there was no mistaking that Holmes — the Stanford dropout turned Palo Alto health-tech startup founder and CEO — was a character, and where there’s a character, there’s a role for a hungry actor.
As the world awaits Jennifer Lawrence’s take on Holmes in the AppleTV+ feature “Bad Blood” — to be adapted and directed by Adam McKay (“Don’t Look Up”) from the John Carreyrou book — an eight-part Hulu miniseries starring Amanda Seyfried charges out of the gate with a challenge: beat this. Often underestimated, Seyfried has been quietly racking up terrific performances when given the chance (as Marion Davies in David Fincher’s “Mank,” a mother battling post-partum depression in “A Mouthful of Air,” and as Bobby and Shelly’s daughter in David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” revival), and her riveting take on the intense, strange, pitiable, deplorable Holmes has got tongues wagging.
In telling the true-crime tale of fraudulent health technology company Theranos, once headquartered in Palo Alto, “The Dropout” comes with an impressive pedigree. It takes as its source material Rebecca Jarvis’ six-episode ABC Audio podcast of the same name, which dropped in early 2019. Elizabeth Meriwether, best known for the hit FOX sitcom “New Girl,” holds a creator credit for the miniseries and screenwriting credit on the first and last episodes (the latter shared with Sofya Levitsky-Weitz). Michael Showalter, who directed the recent biopic “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” helms the first half of the miniseries, while directors Francesca Gregorini (“Killing Eve”) and Erica Watson (TV’s “Snowpiercer”) split the last four episodes.
Exceptional casting also distinguishes the series, with Naveen Andrews (“Lost”) as Seyfried’s romantic and business partner Sunny Balwani, two-time Emmy winner William H. Macy (“Shameless”) as Holmes' antagonist Richard Fuisz, three-time Emmy winner Laurie Metcalf (“The Conners”) as Stanford professor of medicine Phyllis Gardner, Stephen Fry as Theranos chief scientist Ian Gibbons, Alan Ruck (“Succession”) as Walgreens exec Jay Rosan, and Sam Waterston (“Law and Order”) and Anne Archer (“Fatal Attraction”) as George and Charlotte Shultz, just for starters.
Certainly, “The Dropout” will generate plenty of opinions and touch raw nerves in Palo Alto, where so much of the action takes place. People who were there for these events or know the people involved will have to make up their own minds as to the overall veracity of the show’s depictions. But the scripts for the seven episodes thus far made available for review hew closely to the known facts of the case, while offering a believable interpretation of Holmes’ psychology.
Meriwether and the writing team wisely take a chronological approach to the complex unfolding narrative, apart from opening the miniseries (and each subsequent episode) with a taste of Holmes’ July 2017 deposition in San Francisco, re-created by Seyfried. The story then picks up in Houston in 1995, establishing Holmes’ family history — including her father’s own corporate strikeout at Enron — before heading to Stanford (early decision) in 2002. “I don’t want to be president,” she tells her family. “I want to be a billionaire.” And so it is that she abandons her undergraduate study to follow the college-dropout-turned-disruptor model of Steve Jobs by chasing the dream of inventing a world-changing medical device.
The big idea: a machine that could painlessly test a drop of patient blood and provide while-you-wait lab results. In one of the miniseries’ best scenes, Holmes pitches her idea to a skeptical Gardner (in a win for authenticity, the production boasts footage shot on the Stanford campus). In the role of a media-age Cassandra, Gardner rejects Holmes’ idea as unfortunately impossible and, when pressed, calls out the naivete of Holmes’ vaulting ambitions, and what women like her are up against, in a killer monologue: “As a woman, let me explain something to you. You don’t get to skip any steps. You have to do the work. Your work, other people’s work. You have to do so much work that they have to admit that you did it, nobody helped you. You have to take away all their excuses. And then if you get anything, anything wrong, they’ll destroy you and they’ll be so happy to do it.”
“The Dropout” proves consistently thoughtful about how Holmes’ initial good intentions — however colored by the promise of attendant fame and fortune — and feminist pride set her on a course that made her feel there was no turning back. Self-aggrandizement ironically locked Holmes into years of painfully certain imposter syndrome as she stalled investors, hoping she could produce a technology she had already guaranteed she had cracked. The story traces that fine line between having hustle and being a hustler, a line we watch Holmes cross after being fed the exceptional stories of Silicon Valley disruptor culture.
From the other side of that line, it looks a lot like a velvet rope: now part of the elite, Holmes enjoys the trappings of luxury and rubs elbows not only with enthusiastic investor George Shultz, but Rupert Murdoch, Bill Clinton and Joe Biden. In its margins, “The Dropout” exposes how the art of the deal outpaces any substance in the house of cards that is our late-stage-capitalist economy. Creating the appearance of success out of nothing, Holmes begins to take on the quality of an evangelizing cult leader.
Holmes’ fabulist fraudulence in a high-stakes world, her completely unsustainable long con, make for addictive drama that also dips into suspenseful paranoid-thriller territory and, at times, perverse humor (Holmes dancing to “Too Legit to Quit” in front of her troops even as her lies are on the brink of being exposed). “The Dropout” stocks up on sad and telling details of a businesswoman surrounded by patriarchy, whether it be Holmes worrying over the middle button of her blouse, buttoning and unbuttoning it before a key meeting, or adopting a strange new voice in a “masculine” low register that Seyfried nails.
Meriwether isn’t interested in a mere ritualized torture of Holmes, which would be tempting given her crime of endangering the medically vulnerable. Of course, the narrative fairly and emphatically criticizes Holmes for her moral failings, but it is also crucially, touchingly sympathetic toward her and the agony and the ecstasy of belief in oneself. We see Holmes berate an Apple “Genius,” equating her seeming lack of ambition with a lack of purpose, but just as innovation needs bold risk-takers who believe they can achieve the impossible, there’s a venture-capital graveyard filled with those who flew too close to the sun and crashed down to Earth.