“The Dropout” operates under no delusion of where Elizabeth Holmes ends up. Even if the saga of meteoric health tech startup Theranos wasn’t a ubiquitous, high-profile headline fascination of the last decade, the new Hulu series dramatizing the rise and fall of the company opens with a glimpse of that latter half. There’s Holmes (deftly played here by Amanda Seyfried), Theranos CEO, answering to federal investigators about what she knew about her company’s elaborate smokescreen, one that brought in billions of dollars before flaming out on the biggest stage possible.
Only, like Holmes herself, “The Dropout” is elusive in how much it actually answers. When presented with a basic overview of the Theranos story — an aspiring corporate wunderkind pitches a revolutionary idea about blood testing that was never really going to work the way she claimed it would — the lingering question is still a basic one: “Why?” What reason would someone have for staking global attention and a 10-figure growth of their bank account on something provably false? “The Dropout” doesn’t have an easy answer there, but the best parts of this eight-episode series succeed more as an emotional and tonal approximation of the inside of the Theranos bubble rather than a play-by-play retelling of actual events.
It’s easy to see why that second option would be tempting. As depicted in the podcast that gives this TV series its title, and first in the accounts of Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou, Theranos’ conception in the public has arced in a way that’s pretty easily translatable to the screen. At the outset, Holmes’ corporate ambitions take her away from her freshman year at Stanford. Her personal relationship with investor Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews) becomes a romantic partnership and a business one, in that order. Initial speedbumps in the company give way to a steady expansion of VC money and an eye-grabbing collection of public backers. And then, in spectacular fashion, the entire illusion shatters into smaller and smaller pieces.
For the most part, “The Dropout” doesn’t stray too far from that path. The respective synopses for the public account of events and for this show have a fairly broad overlap. Showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether, along with Michael Showalter directing the first handful of episodes, does manage to inject a little bit of distinct DNA, staging a few impromptu dance parties and Holmes’ own personal transformations amidst Theranos’ early days. Much of what surrounds those is an entertaining if workmanlike checklist of the major checkpoints along an already documented path.
The closest that “The Dropout” gets to shaking up its own narrative ambition — aside from an early moment more Sméagol than Steve Jobs — is its fourth episode. After being locked into Holmes and Balwani’s ambitions (and the churn of people caught in that wake), “The Dropout” spends an episode largely on the other side of the corporate table, embedded with a subset of the Walgreen’s corporate braintrust. As one of the potential suitors for the retail side of the Theranos business plan, the Walgreen’s cadre of decision-makers gives this show a thin veneer of farce that’s largely absent elsewhere.
“The Dropout” rightfully considers the privacy and health implications of this company’s decisions, ones that had real-life consequences for both employees and an untold number of patients who relied on faulty test results. But the parts of the show that ring truest center more on the inanity of corporate crystal ball gazing than the ominous curdling of Holmes’ empty “change the world” ethos. In an ecosystem where fortunes are made on speculation and moving around theoretical assets, Holmes is the perfect dramatic centerpiece for someone who for a time made obfuscation a viable business model. Watching Seyfried’s Holmes retreat into a protective cocoon, whether on a private plane or tucked out of sight behind her office desk, is the closest that “The Dropout” comes to understanding how Holmes was able to push things as far as she did.
So the most effective parts of “The Dropout” aren’t the ones drenched in dread or foreboding, but the ones in which the people driving the Theranos bus are shown to be ignorant, willfully or otherwise. That ignorance is initially part of Sunny’s presumed charm, his willingness to push Theranos to its stated goals, evidence be damned. Even while putting on a wide smile for whoever Sunny’s intended audience is, Andrews is sharp at keeping the potential of a more manipulative side simmering. The performance comes to life in a slew of office showdowns, but “The Dropout” finds a more interesting way to represent what that character means to the overall story when he’s seen berating employees from behind soundproof glass walls.
Yet, despite those occasional strengths, one of the reasons that “The Dropout” ultimately loses steam toward the back half of the season is that Holmes is fundamentally more interesting as an enigma. Her abrupt conversation switches, her fixation on tiny details, and (yes, of course) the changes in her speaking voice became the parts that stuck out most in the podcast, in Carreyrou’s telling, and in any other iteration of this story. That’s mainly because even people in positions to shed light on those odd, seemingly unmotivated decisions couldn’t explain them either.
So “The Dropout” reaches for slivers of paranoid thriller, high-stakes financial drama, and boardroom farce without fully cashing in on the best parts of either. In the absence of “The Dropout” having much to add to the existing perception of Holmes, it’s up to Seyfried to do some a lot of the heavy lifting. In doing so, she wisely navigates that middle ground between Holmes’ initial public branding as the premier 2010s girlboss and the competing perception of her as a spoiled sociopath who refused to accept any version of “no.” The biggest decision that “The Dropout” makes is to paint Holmes as someone more prone to self-delusion than maliciousness.
Still, even if its depiction of the journalistic process (Carreyrou, played here by Ebon Moss-Bachrach, becomes a major late-season player) or the lab development of the in-house Theranos technology feels a tad oversimplified at points, this story is too compelling for this series to be anything other than watchable. And no series with this ensemble could be anywhere close to inert, even if some of these roles feel straight out of a podcast listener’s fancasting wishes. (Laurie Metcalf as the Stanford professor who saw through the facade from the start! Kurtwood Smith as the company’s A-list attorney! Sam Waterston as former Defense Secretary George Schulz!)
Two real strengths from the supporting cast represent the ideal balance that “The Dropout” finds at various points throughout its runtime. As early Theranos employee Ian Gibbons, Stephen Fry strikes the perfect combination between someone genuinely wanting to do good and then devastated when that dream begins to curdle in real time. And as Gibbons’ obverse, in-house legal counsel Linda Tanner, the always-reliable Michaela Watkins locates that eerie intersection between absurdity and menace that made Theranos a company that people were willing to risk their careers and massive lawsuits to expose.
A few time-capsule needle drops and winking references to a tech world gone by (“What’s ‘UberCab?’”) have the same kind of mixed results the overall series does. Some offer genuine pathways to a particular mindset at a particular point in time. Others are window-dressing for a version of a show rooted in transposing a story from one longform storytelling vehicle to another. The good news is that, either way, this is a tale that even in its most straightforward telling still has plenty to latch on to.
The first three episodes of “The Dropout” premiere Thursday, March 3 on Hulu. One additional episode will be available weekly for the remainder of the season.