The Dropout

4 out of 5

Created by: Elizabeth Meriwether

What’s the moratorium on fictionalized accounts of events? Documentaries, or docudramas – or any kind of reporting – has leeway; even with bias, it’s theoretically an attempt to report “facts,” and it’s up to the viewer / reader to compare and contrast between sources. But when we’re dealing with very public people or happenings, those who are still very much affected by public discourse, or situations which are still fresh in people’s minds and causing fallout, and you’re presenting actors and scripts as representatives of those things, and in the form of entertainment over facts (whether in quotes or not) – is there a desirable wait time?

This isn’t a concern for decorum, or to avoid touchy subjects – that’s where I’d go back to the difference between discourse versus something fictionalized, and I’d definitely encourage the former to happen at any point. But in the case of the latter, let’s assume we’re going two possible directions with it: to just tell a story – i.e. pure entertainment – or to commentate; and of course, those directions might cross over one another. In such cases, this question of How Soon Is Too Soon? feels relevant: are we far enough away from whatever it is or whomever to be able to properly assess our reaction? And if the subject matter is a person, what are we doing by increased their fame or infamy by lumping on some potentially populist opinion?

This is, I’d say, the main hitch with The Dropout, a 2022 show about the genesis of Theranos, and the main woman behind it, Elizabeth Holmes (here portrayed by Amanda Seyfriend), which very publicly folded under scandal starting from about 2015 when accusations of its falsified claims regarding convenient blood testing began to surface. The series’ writers do a good job of trying to stay away from “defining” things – it does not humanize Holmes for us – but there is an arc there, vaguely tracing how her ambitions superceded, seemingly, all sense of reason, allowing her to become a 19 year old CEO perhaps on the quirk of being a young, inoffensively attractive female with a big idea that had some science-y sounding concepts backing it up. And so there’s inevitably commentary to that: what it was about the Boys Clubs of Big Business that made this possible; what it may have been about her lifestyle and personality that produced a woman whose sole desire was to be a female Bill Gates. Although the show comes with those “fictionalized” tags, it’s easy to take this all as fact. And maybe it is! But one can imagine Holmes, not so far removed from this, watching “her” show and maybe just smiling at the way it partially advances her agenda of being recognized; and I don’t know if there’s much to be gleaned from the commentary yet because we’re still so close to it. It’s just: That Happened.

It’s an interesting as crap tale (and damning of society as all get-out), but I’m not sure if the Why of telling it in this format is there yet. Though I have no idea what the moratorium “should” be.

However, I’d circle back around to the caution I’d mentioned the writers employing: The Dropout feels like facts, which may be a bad thing if that means it makes someone form an opinion without further research, but nothing here feels overt in its messaging. Director Michael Showalter, helming the series’ first half, brings an excellent balance to the tone that underlines the inherent comedy of human errors without doing a disservice to the tragedies of the same – the real and potential hurts caused by Theranos. And the later directors carry that over well when things shift more to the latter, once Theranos is in practice and Holmes and her boyfriend / business partner Sunny (Naveen Andrews) are in constant damage control over their frequent lies, literally threatening people into silence. I’d even say that the show purposefully minuses out more “personal” elements in order to keep the focus on What happened, and not Why; this occasionally creates some blips in the flow, since it’s a drama and we expect those personal elements, but it’s ultimately to the show’s strength.

But, all of this balancing is elevated by the actors, Seyfried and Andrews in particular. In many of these “real event” dramas, the actors end up playing parts. They mimic. Give them prosthetics, and it can make it even worse. Even an excellent show like Dopesick greatly suffered from this. But while Seyfried has absolutely nailed Holmes’ mannerisms, and voice, I quickly realized that I wasn’t seeing her as Seyfried; I wasn’t seeing the actress at all. Her representation of Holmes is haunting; her dissociative personality (or the way Seyfried brings that to the screen) makes her behaviors believable, which is what helps the woven in commentary to not seem overt. And Naveen – vacillating between lovesick boyfriend and a dominating, verbally abusive partner and Theranos COO – is frightening; again, he is totally one with his character – I was afraid when he was on screen. This does carry over throughout the whole cast – you recognize these people (that’s William H. Macy; that’s Bill Irwin) but perhaps the positive side of covering more current events is you have recent sources from which to draw your representation, allowing a fuller picture for the actor; at no point did I feel like anyone was doing a bit.

Combine that with how terrifying / fascinating the Theranos debacle was, and you’ve got some very powerful, gripping television. While I think there’s probably an ultimate version of this story when we have even more distance from it – when the commentary can be sharper, and more punishing, with hindsight understanding what the long-lasting effects were – this is probably the ultimate version that could be made now, due to all the strengths in front of, and behind the camera.