Why The Dropout should be your next box set
Ivan Radford | On 10, Mar 2022
This review is based on the first three episodes.
You can perhaps tell when an epoch is reaching its peak because a certain type of awareness starts to kick in – and the number of success stories and groundbreaking steps forward start to be matched by the number of failures, unforeseen consequences and people coming down the other side of a phenomenon. From Inventing Anna and Fyre to The Tinder Swindler and the upcoming WeCrashed, the modern tech age has reached the point where we’re beginning to look back at the stories of people who have taken advantage of the new digital frontier for their own benefit – perhaps the inevitable end result of a capitalist mindset in an always-connected culture of personal branding.
It’s been 18 years since Theranos was founded by Elizabeth Holmes. The company devised a new way of carrying out blood tests with an automated, tiny device – an iPod for the medical world with astonishing potential to improve the speed and accuracy of diagnoses. It was the kind of game-changing startup that people dream of inventing and venture capitalists dream of getting rich from – and so it was no surprise that, in 2013, investors had lined up to pour money in to the point where the company was valued at around $10 billion. Holmes was the youngest self-made female billionaire in the USA, having built an empire out of nothing.
Except, well, it literally was built out of nothing: the technology she claimed to have invented didn’t work, and the tests and results that justified her claims were all false. At the time of writing, Holmes has been convicted of fraud and is on bail awaiting sentencing in September 2022.
The Dropout follows Holmes all the way through this rollercoaster of ambition and misinformation. “This is Google, this is Yahoo, but this is better,” she declares with a bold confidence, and Amanda Seyfried is fantastic at capturing that bullish determination. Is she genuinely keen to make a positive difference in the world or just out to prove her own worth? The series deftly manages to allow room for both possibilities, without letting that ambiguity undermine its own tone; showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether (New Girl) doesn’t shy away from humanising Holmes as someone who is very much shaped by our current world, without demanding that we automatically sympathise with her.
A large part of the series’ success stems from Amanda Seyfried, who is perfectly cast as the increasingly desperate woman. She plays her as somewhere between wide-eyed innocent, struggling to get out from under the wing of businessman Sunny (Naveen Andrews), who has instilled himself as a father-like pseudo-boyfriend figure, while also never knowing when to stop to achieve what she wants. The first time she decides to lie about Theranos is a last-minute decision made in a rush – something that almost feels understandable until the moment she actually commits fraud. And her refusal to back down from that deceit incriminates her over and over again, as she hardens, mistreats members of her team and even starts to lower her voice to sound more successful and authoritative.
Seyfried is supported by an excellent cast that doesn’t shy away from the human stakes at hand, from Naveen Andrews and the slightly creepy Sunny and James Hiroyuki Liao’s heartbreaking turn as Edmond Ku, an engineer who gives everything to Theranos in the early days, to Michael Ironside as Don Lucas, the brash backer who gives the company a leg up to the big table. William H Macy adds an intimidating edge as rival inventor Richard Fuisz, while Stephen Fry is understated as biochemist Ian Gibbons, who tragically begins to see what’s happened and what’s coming.
Despite the wealth of names in the frame, though, the series keeps things streamlined and pacy, briefly giving us snippets of Holmes’ future deposition in court but mostly allowing us to experience the shocking and surprising ride as it unfolds, from one bizarre twist and bad decision to the next. The result is a tense, gripping and alarming watch, a compelling study of entrepreneurship gone wrong. In an age of self-made myths and constant comparisons between our own successes and others’, The Dropout is a timely diagnosis of irresistible hubris that feels like it could only be told now.