We’re in the middle of a Scam Rennaissance. While there’s nothing like a story of a good grift, recently all sorts of real-life scams have overtaken the streaming scene. The Tinder Swindler and Inventing Anna, both streaming on Netflix, told the story of real people tricked by a charismatic, mysterious figure.
Hulu’s entry into this trending topic is The Dropout, a dramatization of Elizabeth Holmes’ rise and fall as the CEO of Theranos based on the podcast of the same name. But while Netflix’s scam stories only affected a handful of people, Theranos had the potential to falsely diagnose countless patients.
The Dropout considers this aspect with deep gravity but balances it out with ridiculous moments that undercut the inherent quirks of the enigmatic Elizabeth Holmes.
Amanda Seyfried recreates Elizabeth Holmes’ infamous voice with a dedication and reverence usually accompanied by a lecture about “Method” acting. The series begins before Elizabeth even graduates high school, where she is given the classic “underdog” treatment. She’s misunderstood in her single-minded dream to change the world. A prominent female professor (played by the inimitable Laurie Metcalf) doesn’t believe in her, and she’s written off because of her age.
The show suddenly manifests the few people who do believe in Elizabeth. Before the end of the premiere episode, she is about to drop out of Stanford and forge ahead with a new company with a singular vision: to test for hundreds of diseases with only a few drops of blood.
If the first episode were to stand on its own, it would be a fabulous rags-to-riches story. Well, upper-middle-class-to-riches. But the truth is much more complicated. Though the audience is given every opportunity to root for Elizabeth Holmes, as it attempts to humanize her with an underdog story. However, it gets harder to root for her with every subsequent episode.
Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews) and British biochemist Ian Gibbons (Stephen Fry) are the proverbial angel and devil on her shoulders. Ian coaches Elizabeth through the science, and Sunny Balwani keeps her business-mind shrewd (and her romantic life busy).
But while the star-studded cast keeps the emotions crackling, there’s an uncanny nature to how the show dramatizes the true story of Theranos. In The Inventor, the HBO documentary following Theranos, one of the biggest moments of levity comes from Elizabeth dancing awkwardly to “Celebrate Good Times” by Kool & the Gang. In The Dropout, Elizabeth is constantly jamming out to the hits of that year as a way to establish the setting — and it’s nowhere near as awkward as Elizabeth’s real dance moves.
One of the most egregious signs of this story trying to be a “Prestige TV” series is how it uses Yoda from Star Wars. It’s well known Theranos HQ had a large mural reading with the Yoda quote, “DO OR DO NOT — THERE IS NO TRY,” but The Dropout makes Yoda a strange sort of talisman in her life. Symbols of the iconic Jedi character pop up onscreen throughout the series as if Yoda is following her through her rise and fall.
Much like The Act, Hulu’s other based-on-a-true-story drama series, The Dropout takes a story that’s already difficult to believe and then muddies it with manufactured drama. That said, the acting is sublime, and like The Act, it’s sure to pick up its fair share of Emmys. (Seyfried’s contralto is enough to secure her a win.)
But is that enough to make for an enjoyable watch? At best, The Dropout is a companion piece to the podcast it's based on — and the countless other non-fiction works surrounding the story. By supplementing the drama with the facts, you can discern the truth from the embellishments and realize there’s far more in column A than column B.
If the story is already this unbelievable, do we really need to add more?
The Dropout premieres March 3 on Hulu.