Intrigue, deceit, and fantasy are all necessary ingredients to encourage the human trait of being fascinated by a trainwreck. Streaming platforms are overwhelmed with true crime binges—already an absorbent genre oozing with endless choices. Disney and Hulu’s latest acquisition The Dropout adds itself to the ever-growing global repertoire, providing a stance on fraudulent Big Pharma that’s sexy as well as digestible. With incarnations of the Theranos downfall appearing across different media outlets, does its recent TV dramatisation offer anything that its counterparts can’t achieve?
The face of Elizabeth Holmes has been seen in the likes of Time, Forbes, and Fortune Magazine, her Steve Job-esque turtleneck plastered across national ad campaigns outlining the CEO being “out for blood”. Behind it all, lies a sham. After dropping out of Stanford University aged 19, Elizabeth (played in The Dropout by Amanda Seyfried) has her sights set on science, business, and money. Founding the Theranos corporation, she proposed pioneering technology that diagnosed illness from a single drop of blood. Pulling in funding from wealthy investors and hoodwinking the country’s largest pharmaceutical retailers, Holmes was quickly tipped as the world’s youngest self-made billionaire.
If the story seems familiar, it probably is. Back in 2019, The Dropout was initially an investigative journalism podcast by US media giants ABC, looking to expose the inner workings of Theranos’ culture of intimidation. Voted by The Guardian as the best podcast of the year, its six episodes are well-paced in their evidence, yet perhaps not living up to the same levels of satisfaction provided by its 2019 competition (e.g. The Missing Cryptoqueen). Scintillating in its ability to offer multiple perspectives into both Elizabeth Holmes and Thernos, the podcast teases us with the ultimate seduction—what next?
An Effective Dramatisation?
While Hulu’s The Dropout effectively adapts the framework from its original audible source, it provides a fictional insight into the human aspect of the Elizabeth Holmes trajectory. The series doesn’t necessarily provide a judgement on what’s to come, but rather fleshes out the what-ifs of the personal story behind the public outcry. It could be argued that there’s no real difference between speculating on the fictitious perspectives of supporting players and interviewing somebody that was only a fleeting background character in Elizabeth’s real life. That being said, the imagined insights into the Theranos scandal are incredibly intriguing, pulling the viewer into uncomfortable proximity to corporate secrets.
Even at first glance, Amanda Seyfried’s total embodiment of Elizabeth is nothing short of perfection. Watching interview footage side by side, Seyfried shows the transgression from preppy outcast teen to authoritarian CEO, nailing her character through distinctive, subtle details. She’s the anchoring point of the series—everything else shown is somehow through the grip of her dictatorial lens. It’s a choice that arguably hinders a true crime aficionado from accessing the nitty-gritty—details of the ‘hush hush’ frauding are glossed over in favour of fraught family dynamics and messy romance.
After a few fairly stagnant opening episodes, the drama whips up to an exhilarating pace towards the end of the season. It’s properly edge-of-your-seat viewing, with Naveen Andrews’ Sunny Balwani ruling with an iron first over a gaggle of bioscientists conflicted by their moral conscience. Casting Stephen Fry as renowned chemist Ian Gibbons feels particularly fitting, merging his widely-known intellect with the hit of joviality the Theranos decline is in desperate need of. There’s great attention to physical detail—with creators Elizabeth Meriwether, Liz Heldens, and Liz Hannah achieving their goal of making Elizabeth Holmes more humanistic.
Speaking Truth Into Existence
The Dropout’s agency in social commentary is what crowns its success in dramatising Big Pharma fallout. Pharmaceutical fraud and medical nightmares have graced the small screen before (such as Netflix’s The Pharmacist), yet have failed to hold viewership figures comparative to the hype of a ‘sexy’ Hollywood murder. The Dropout looks to change this reputation for the better, examining race in America, extreme emasculation, and parental stances on kids being sexually active. There’s a huge emphasis on what Elizabeth was like as a child—something summed up in two sentences during the podcast. Creating an emotional tug that lasts for The Dropout’s duration, this continued sense of relatability provides the framework for which shocking and stoic public knowledge is built on.
As a direct comparison to its podcast predecessor, Hulu’s series steers away from the pitfalls of real-life drama being utilised as sensationalist entertainment. While successfully emulating important narrative points, the drama’s pacing could certainly be more succinct, noticeably lacking in areas that the well-rounded six-part podcast doesn’t. Ultimately, the pair are achieving two separate goals, making the existence of each valid in their own right. While The Dropout podcast drills down into hard-hitting facts, punchy journalism, and scientific details of deception, the series focuses on Elizabeth as anything other than a criminal.
With an additional documentary special due to be released, it could be argued The Dropout series hasn’t achieved enough to satisfy the viewer’s appetite. The true crime consumer wants a mix of cold facts and relatability, meaning the podcast and series may actually be the perfectly balanced pair. While the world waits for Elizabeth Holmes’ sentencing and next moves, neither chronicles of the rise and fall of Theranos are perfect, yet both are essential for any aspiring detective.
The Dropout airs on Disney+ from March 3rd.