The Dropout review: An overlong Theranos investigation that's somehow too late and too soon
Can we make the four-part miniseries a thing? Every limited TV event I've seen lately would benefit from further limiting. Take The Dropout, Hulu's erratic relitigation of the Theranos scandal, which debuts March 3. In the meandering drama, Amanda Seyfried does her best trailer voice as Silicon monster Elizabeth Holmes. It takes three hours to get to the juiciest phase of Holmes' vampiric con job. Things really start to move in episode 7, which must be the worst thing you can read in a TV review.
Seyfried has to play Holmes from teenage ambition through young adult fame and thirtysomething disgrace. It's the lamest structure of soup-to-nuts storytelling, just one damn thing after another, with precious little insight into its confounding central character. Her company promised a medical breakthrough in painless blood testing, offering a full biological readout from one single drop. It was all a lie, though inflated Valley rhetoric might prefer a softer term — "prospective truth," or "theoretically eventual fact." The premiere introduces Elizabeth at every point in her time continuum. Here's the CEO at the magazine-cover apex, barely blinking as she preaches her billion-dollar biotech gospel. Here's the infamous liar caught on tape mid-testimony.
And then The Dropout settles in for a leisurely tour through her personal history, from '90s family melodrama through college into the big money Bay Area tech scene. Elizabeth seems bred into the entrepreneur caste, surrounded by great fortune and potential failure. Her father (Michael Gill) walks home one day to announce he just lost his job at freaking Enron. The family seeks financial assistance from their sorta friend Richard Fuisz (William H. Macy), a wealthy man with at least one spare house and a boiling reaction to social slights. Later, in a Mandarin immersion program, Elizabeth meets Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews), a charismatic brainiac who casually mentions that time he sold his company for 40 million dollars.
For her part, Elizabeth wants to be a billionaire and idolizes Steve Jobs' universe-denting role as a celebrity executive messiah. The first three episodes comprise an Elizabeth Holmes origin story, moving past her time at Stanford to the sleeping-bag-in-the-office phase of her start-up career. Her relationship with Sunny deepens right alongside her devotion to her company. Cheerful biochemist Ian Gibbons (Stephen Fry) promises Elizabeth her futuristic vision will come true while reminding her that you can't rush science. Then the money starts running out. More funding is necessary, so the statistics get fuzzy. Phony tests get performed on genuine patients. At a certain point, the truth just seems to stop mattering for the Theranos investors and employees. This thing could be the next Google; who cares if the numbers get pulled out of their anos?
Executive producer Liz Meriwether seems to be trying out different explanations for Holmes' deceit. She has noble ambitions and doesn't want to run out of money. She worries her status as a female CEO amidst the dudebrocracy requires absolute perfection. She actually believes her researchers are perpetually thisclose to a final breakthrough. (A reported campus assault is a pivotal, if somewhat oblique, event in the premiere.) Seyfried's vaguely Vulcan performance prints the legend of Holmes' torpedo intensity, without quite embodying any of these dramatic possibilities. I worry the show underrates the simple possibility that it's fun to get rich and powerful very quickly by telling lies.
I also think the why here is just much less interesting than the what. Theranos snowball rolls into a billion-dollar phenomenon. The company earns institutional credibility. Major corporations and grumpy old men desperately seek Elizabeth's approval. One whole episode focuses on Theranos' courtship of Walgreens; I mean it as a compliment when I say that episode could have been cut down into a very good 5-minute sequence. "I met Rupert Murdoch tonight at the thing!" Elizabeth exclaims at one point, which captures the general screechy-biopic tenor of the dialogue. (Another chestnut: "What are they calling you these days? The millennials?" Even funnier because the person is speaking in 2002.)
Meriwether has a long sitcom track record, and hallowed Wet Hot American Summer Michael Showalter alum directs key episodes. Theranos is certainly a funny story, in a modern-capitalism-is-anti-human sort of way. But The Dropout often uses comedy as a crutch, aiming way too often for that Pam & Tommy tone of needle-drop hysteria. Everyone seems encouraged to go big. Macy looks and acts like a cartoon. I'm not sure watching Elizabeth Holmes dance by herself to pop music really adds to our understanding of her motivations. Her relationship with Sunny is a matter of courtroom ambiguity at this point, though I do think Andrews may just be too dashing to really nail the onscreen character's descent into Orwellian creep.
The show gets better when it shifts focus to the other people caught in the web. Sam Waterston runs his gravitas off a cliff as George Shultz, the Nixon-Reagan grandee who becomes Holmes' sternest defender. Kurtwood Smith is a preening delight as brash mega-lawyer David Boies. Fry is quietly charming and then devastating. Meanwhile, after years of complex lawsuits, Elizabeth's old family friend Richard winds up leading a kind of anti-Theranos superteam, joining forces with skeptical professor Phyllis Gardner (Laurie Metcalf, righteous as ever) while Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) tries to find the truth behind the hype.
The real-life Carreyrou was hounded in every direction. (His boss' boss' boss' boss was, of course, Theranos investor Rupert Murdoch.) Much of the material around him feels overly composited, though. Worth pointing out that Carreyrou wrote the (great) Holmes text Bad Blood. That IP's already claimed for an upcoming Adam McKay movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, which seemed much more enticing before Adam McKay and Jennifer Lawrence ever made a movie together. After so many listless Dropout hours, I have the sense that it may just be too soon and too late for all these new Elizabeth Holmes stories. Time may provide more perspective, but right now her legend is freakshow fodder for podcasts, documentaries, and memes. This blood's gone bad. C
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