This limited series is a solid if unambitious look at Elizabeth Holmes
Failed start-ups have quickly become a hot-button topic for streaming services. We have simultaneously gotten the role out of the doomed stories of Uber, WeWork, and Theranos these past few weeks. The first of these mini-series to wrap up its run is The Dropout (2022) focusing on Elizabeth Holmes and her failed healthcare start-up Theranos.
The Dropout is a comprehensive look at young prodigy Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried) her rise in crafting her multi-billion-dollar start-up Theranos, which sought to make healthcare diagnoses with a single drop of blood, and her fall as the fraud inside her company is discovered.
The Dropout is created by Elizabeth Merriweather, who is better known for her sit-com New Girl (2011-2018). Merriweather takes on a curious structure with The Dropout, starting as a character study on Elizabeth and how she carefully crafted the persona we all now know today. I found this take to be fascinating, trying to understand the seeming sociopathic actions of Holmes as her company grew bigger and bigger. However, Merriweather switches perspectives after the third episode, bringing a wider lens and a distance to Elizabeth’s story. This allows The Dropout to become a more informative dramatic re-enactment of recent history, but for those who had watched the brilliant Alex Gibney documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (2019) this will all feel familiar, albeit with the sheen of famous actors. This perspective change is a missed opportunity on The Dropout’s part, as the promising exploration that Merriweather had embarked upon and set-up so carefully in the first few episodes is abandoned just as the character of Elizabeth Holmes is becoming complicated. It’s understandable that such a persona would be intimidating for any writer, yet it’s also a gold mine for a character study.
In the absence of Merriweather diving deeply into Elizabeth and sifting through her psyche, Seyfried in the lead role largely picks up the slack. Seyfried delivers a career-best performance as we see her ambition eat her up from the inside. Seyfried is able to deliver her take on Elizabeth’s journey and psychological deterioration with a calculated and devastating performance. In the series’ more informative segments, The Dropout is also elevated by some strong supporting performances that bring about a greater immersion than the writing demanded, notably from Stephen Fry, Dylan Minnette, and Naveen Andrews, the latter of whom takes a flat and unlikeable character and makes him a fascinating figure.
Many of the recent start-up series have run into the similar problem that The Dropout has, of being too afraid of digging into the ugly aspect of its protagonists for fear of appearing to champion them. However, ugliness and conflict are what make stories interesting, this missed opportunity makes viewers doubt whether the series’ creators are interested in exploring these characters or in retelling a buzzy news flash. The Dropout toes the line, but sadly decides to play it safe when things start to get interesting. Only time will tell how the other start-up series do.