March 31, 2022

Television

A great American grifter: ‘The Dropout’

By Craig Mathieson
Image of Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes in The Dropout. Image supplied

Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes in The Dropout. Image supplied

A nuanced and exacting portrayal of the Theranos scam leads this month’s streaming highlights

The follies of Silicon Valley start-up culture readily make for voyeuristic viewing: all that ego, the hunger for capital and the lip-licking venality. But how does it feel to be shaped by that milieu? In the first episode of The Dropout (Disney+), Stanford student and budding inventor Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried) is trying to conjure up a transformational idea. A devotee of Steve Jobs, Holmes presses her Apple iPod against her face, as if it’s a sacred totem that can transmit inspiration. While The Dropout has no shortage of corporate malfeasance – Holmes is currently awaiting sentencing in a US federal court after being found guilty of defrauding investors – it also has a deeply unnerving physicality. Holmes doesn’t just change her image to help woo investors for her biotechnology firm Theranos, her body charts the narrative with dissociative states, altered speaking patterns and eruptive dancing. She gets reprogrammed.

The limited series centres on Theranos’ fraudulent failure over a decade to produce a device that could deliver on Holmes’ idea of multiple and immediate blood tests from a single drop of blood. It is by no means an apologia of her actions, but it looks at her descent with empathy, measuring the personal flaws that were exacerbated by the professional circles she entered. “Have you fired anyone yet?” tech billionaire Larry Ellison (Hart Bochner) says by way of introduction, and the episodes reveal how Holmes discovered and pushed up against red lines, before knowingly crossing them. Adapted from the 2019 podcast of the same name, The Dropout is both nuanced and exacting. “I can’t get anyone to believe me,” Holmes tells her mother in the aftermath of an implied sexual assault on campus, and the budding mogul compensates by making sure no one subsequently doubts her.

Fresh from David Fincher’s 2020 Netflix biopic Mank, Seyfried inhabits the role of Holmes, capturing her awkward interactions and the oversized whites of her eyes. Holmes’ dynamic with boyfriend and co-conspirator Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews) fluctuates cruelly, while the storytelling takes pains to illustrate the human cost of her actions, whether it’s deceiving patients in a test trial or driving one of her first employees, chemist Ian Gibbons (Stephen Fry, quietly heart-rending), to breaking point. The show is helmed by comedic talents: creator Elizabeth Meriwether was responsible for daffy sitcom New Girl, while Michael Showalter has directed numerous amusements. There’s a strand of black humour and workplace mishaps throughout – the fourth episode, where Theranos deceives pharmacy giant Walgreens into a partnership, is deliciously funny – but the jokes linger, so that they illuminate a pathology of deception that became systematic. Most real-life dramas condense and streamline controversial events, but The Dropout subtly opens them up for complex reappraisal.

Another way to praise The Dropout is to compare it to WeCrashed (Apple TV+), which is concurrently charting, via weekly streaming episodes, another hubris-laden corporate saga in the form of the American shared workspace company WeWork, which swiftly went from start-up to $65 billion valuation before a calamitous IPO nearly felled the company. As Israeli-born co-founder Adam Neumann, Jared Leto is a portrait of messianic self-belief and charming irresponsibility. Time and again, Neumann bends those he desperately needs to his will, and then discards them. But that structure proves to be repetitive, and Neumann is less open to examination than Holmes even as he says more. The saving grace is Anne Hathaway as Neumann’s entitled wife Rebekah. Displaying a sharp eye for farcical privilege, Hathaway gets gold-plated and excruciating laughs from Rebekah’s missteps.

Minx (Stan) looks at the feminist revolution of the 1970s from a disarming but telling perspective. When budding editor Joyce Prigger (Ophelia Lovibond) tries to get financing for her strident magazine The Matriarchy Awakens, the only taker is a genial Los Angeles soft-core pornographer, Doug Renetti (Jake Johnson). She agrees to add a male centrefold and associated erotica, and he finances three issues. The two are unlikely allies, butting heads while appraising penises, but Doug’s cut-price operation and the working-class women it employs exposes Joyce to a world where her Vassar graduate theories come up against economic and sexual realities. This is a laidback comedy, overloaded with period-friendly design, but it has a deceptive back and forth beneath the amusing workplace banter. Joyce thinks she’s going to change the world, but the world is changing Joyce.

In brief: HBO’s latest take on a factionalised empire rife with conflict and grand figures is Winning Time (Binge), which depicts – one television season per sporting season – the rise of basketball franchise the Los Angeles Lakers in the early 1980s. It’s a showcase for John C. Reilly, who plays the team’s canny new owner, Jerry Buss. He’s so amusingly assured that you don’t need an interest in the sport or its history to play along. Pieces of Her (Netflix) is a boilerplate thriller of hidden identities and maternal deceit that can’t profit from the uneasy centre of gravity Toni Collette gives to a woman on the run from her past. As the creator, lead director and star, Amy Schumer opts for auteur prestige and an idiosyncratic tone in Life & Beth (Disney+), a comic-drama where her protagonist goes home to Long Island to sort out her flailing life. The concept is overly familiar, but with Michael Cera as a love interest Schumer does enough to give these half-hour episodes a curious momentum. The story never quite ends up where you expect it will.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

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