“The Dropout” knows what it has in Elizabeth Holmes, the real-life enigma who managed to con the biggest power players in Silicon Valley and beyond that she, and she alone, was the future of technology in health care. With her wide-set eyes and impossibly husky voice, Holmes emerged from the pack of bland bros in Patagonia vests as the kind of uniquely, perversely compelling figure that Hollywood has never been able to resist for long. So as with any “stranger than fiction” story in recent memory, it was only a matter of time before someone adapted Holmes’ story to the screen; there’s ostensibly an HBO series in the works, as well as an Adam McKay movie starring Jennifer Lawrence as Holmes. But this Hulu limited series, based on ABC’s podcast investigation into Holmes and her company Theranos, is the first — and its canny performances, writing, and directing should set a high bar for every other version to come.
“The Dropout” follows Elizabeth (Amanda Seyfried) from her time as the ambitious teenage daughter of a disgraced Enron executive (Michael Gill), to her fraught time at Stanford, to her meeting manipulative businessman Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews), to building Theranos from the ground up without making sure the foundation could withstand any real pressure. There are so many different avenues the series could go down, so many perspectives to mine, so many bizarre beats it could’ve hammered home with grim resolve. Instead, it combines the inherent gravitas of Theranos’ collapse with the comedic timing of creator Elizabeth Meriweather (“New Girl”) and director Michael Showalter (“The Big Sick”) to dig into both the pathos and the absurdity of every wild turn this story takes.
What’s more, in a huge coup for the power of editing a show down despite it airing on a streaming network with no time constraints, the series convincingly covers almost 20 years of material without a single episode running over an hour long. (I screened seven out of eight episodes for this review, so I reserve the right to retract this praise should the finale come in at 90 minutes.) And unlike a show like “Inventing Anna,” Netflix’s recent series about New York scammer Anna Delvey that routinely let episodes stray into the 70+ minute range, “The Dropout” also resists the temptation to hold a giant mirror up to its viewer to demand that we, too, examine our parts in consuming this wild tale. There’s plenty else to get through without writing some thesis about What It All Means, and plenty of aghast characters trying to slow down the runaway Theranos train, to make these points without the show highlighting them in bold. In that respect, when “The Dropout” is on the nose — as with just about every nostalgic music cue from teen Elizabeth’s love of the Alabama song “I’m In a Hurry (and Don’t Know Why)” to donning her signature black turtleneck to Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” — there’s at least a sense that the show realizes it, too.
And so “The Dropout” succeeds where “Inventing Anna” doesn’t, creating a sharp portrait of an unnerving woman that doesn’t excuse her actions, but makes them at least more understandable (as in more easily understood, not more “relatable”). As portrayed in this series, Elizabeth Holmes is as terrible as she is recognizable. She doesn’t come out of nowhere, but a noxious combination of ambition, willful ignorance to suffering beyond her own, and a pressing need to destroy every condescending, sexist person standing in her way.
Portraying Holmes’ evolution without straying too far into pure imitation would be a tall order for any actor, and not just because they’d also have to embody her from age 17 to 34. Even the most glowing of profiles about Holmes at the height of her power nonetheless included caveats about her unsettling demeanor, which had the ability to both attract and repel in a single breath. After “Saturday Night Live” star Kate McKinnon bowed out of “The Dropout” to play Carole Baskin in Peacock’s upcoming series about the wild subjects of Netflix’s “Tiger King,” “The Dropout” replaced her with Amanda Seyfried — a choice that quickly proves inspired.
Seyfried has quietly built an impressive resume full of eager ingenues (“Mank,” “Mamma Mia”), charismatic seducers (“Chloe”), rebellious teens (“Veronica Mars,” “Twin Peaks”), and young women simmering on the edge of total righteous fury (“Big Love,” “Jennifer’s Body”). In “The Dropout,” she gets to embody all these types and then some, infusing Elizabeth with a manic drive and desperation to win that makes her every scene viscerally effective. Her performance makes it easy to see how the girl who dances around her childhood bedroom while locking eyes with her Steve Jobs poster becomes the woman who fleeces millions from the world’s most powerful men by selling them her vision with a zeal one can only describe as religious in its intensity. And while she does eventually embrace Holmes’ truly jarring voice, she and “The Dropout” are patient with its progression, using its descent to mirror Elizabeth’s own. The moment when she doubles down on it is also the moment when she doubles down on Theranos as the world’s best hope when it is, in fact, nothing but a high-stakes bluff.
Though it’s Seyfried who must anchor the series with a performance that simultaneously humanizes Elizabeth and justifies her unique pull to the many who want to trust her, it helps that she’s also surrounded by a murderers’ row of talented actors who more than pull their weight. As her frequent scene partner in the role of Sunny, Andrews is equally convincing, and even menacing, as the relationship between Sunny and Elizabeth sours. Stephen Fry and James Hiroyuki Liao are quietly heartbreaking as Theranos’ overwhelmed voices of reason, roles later taken up by Dylan Minette and Camryn Mi-young Kim as the whistleblowers who eventually send Theranos on its fateful downward spiral. Michaela Watkins and Kurtwood Smith turn the dial up to “chilling” as Theranos’ formidable legal team, while Alan Ruck swings in the other direction as an overeager Walgreens executive dying to believe that Elizabeth is the real deal.
Back in Elizabeth’s hometown, Gill and Elizabeth Marvel play her parents with a stalwart pride that erupts when faced with William H. Macy and Mary Lynn Rajskub as the neighbors they find inexcusably tacky. Macy in particular, made up with a half bald cap that makes his forehead appear about eight feet tall, feels ripped from a different and more cartoonish show, but it works when he’s eventually paired with Laurie Metcalf as a perfectly dry professor who never bought what Elizabeth was selling. I haven’t even mentioned Bill Irwin and “Ghosts” breakout Utkarsh Ambudkar as Elizabeth’s lab scientists, or Sam Waterston as (somehow) 90 year-old George Schultz, or Kate Burton as Fry’s wife, so, suffice it to say that “The Dropout” isn’t hurting for solid actors who make the most of every scene they get.
Still: many other shows have crammed in as much talent as they can get, only to fall flatter than they should, considering. What makes “The Dropout” so convincing, in the end, is that it both takes its material seriously and makes the increasingly rare choice to tell its story in largely chronological order even as it bookends most episodes with Holmes’ 2017 deposition about Theranos’ downfall. After reviewing far too many shows that try to manufacture drama with storylines that run parallel, begin at the ending, or drop into the middle for the sheer disorienting hell of it, it was a genuine relief to watch this one and remember the simple satisfaction of a compelling story told from its banal beginning to jaw-dropping end.
“The Dropout” premieres its first three episodes Thursday, March 3 on Hulu.