Just because you know how the story ends doesn’t mean it’s not fun how it all went so wrong.
It’s the premise of an entire emerging genre of media, mostly produced by streaming platforms, that tells the most salacious stories of tech, startups, and wealth gone wrong. Hulu’s “The Dropout,” which focuses on the downfall of Theranos, is the latest. There’s also Apple TV+’s upcoming ‘WeCrashed’ series, based on the ‘WeCrashed: The Rise and Fall of WeWork’ podcast, and then there’s Showtime’s recent ‘Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber’, featuring featured stars like Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Uma Thurman. And let’s not forget when Netflix and Hulu both released Fyre Fest documentaries in the same week, or when Netflix rushed to pick a movie about alleged husband-wife bitcoin launderers before their case was resolved.
But when you are told the same story over and over again without gleaning anything new, it loses its charm. Even before Elizabeth Holmes was convicted of defrauding investors in January, there was little left for us to learn from her story, which has already spawned bona fide crime podcasts, books and documentaries. We read “Bad Blood,” the Theranos reveal from journalist John Carreyrou, whose reporting directly contributed to Theranos’ fall from a $10 billion valuation to nothing; we watched the HBO documentary “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley”; and we watched in real time as Silicon Valley reporters live-tweeted his four-month trial, which was so popular that onlookers had to wake up at 3am to make sure they could get a seat.
However, today Hulu will release the first three episodes of “The Dropout”, and soon Apple TV+ will unveil its film “Bad Blood”, starring Jennifer Lawrence as Holmes.
These online streamers keep churning out this content because they know we’re going to be watching – we’re desperate and eager to understand how people can be so corrupted by the promise of money and fame that they’ll sacrifice their morals.
Starring Amanda Seyfried in the lead role, “The Dropout” is the first fictionalized retelling of the Holmes story we now know so well: the youngest self-made billionaire woman pledges to change the healthcare system with breakthrough technology. . , only for the world to find out that the woman they were comparing to Steve Jobs was peddling technology that never even worked.
The series opens with fictional footage of Holmes on trial, but aside from these brief asides, Theranos’ story is told in a simple, linear narrative. From this perspective, “The Dropout” feels like watching a car crash in slow motion. You can’t look away, but you’re not really enjoying the view.
Seyfried’s portrayal of Holmes is reasonably compelling as she goes out of her way to convince investors, board members, Walgreens partners, and her dedicated employees that she’s not full of shit ( spoiler alert: she’s full of shit). We are also forced to watch her fall for Sunny Balwani, her future COO who is 18 years older than her, despite knowing that in 2021 Holmes would tearfully allege in court that he had regularly abused her during their twelve-year relationship. “The Dropout” makes it clear that Balwani is not a hero in Theranos history. But as she dives headfirst into the role of CEO, the shattering dynamics of her secret relationship with Balwani are glossed over in ways that are hard to watch.
The show also recounts the alleged rape of Holmes as a freshman at Stanford in an attempt to contextualize the personal disasters that made her so determined to achieve fame and success. She recalled in court last year: “I decided I was going to build a life by starting this business.”
In the early episodes, Stephen Fry’s performance as Chief Scientist Ian Gibbons is a highlight of the series. But for viewers familiar with Gibbons’ fate, each of his jovial appearances evokes a sense of foreboding. In 2013, Gibbons killed himself shortly before having to testify in a trial involving Theranos technology. His widow, Rochelle Gibbons, noted that when her husband died, Holmes never reached out – instead, an office manager just asked her to return Ian’s laptop.
As we watch Rochelle learn of Ian’s death, Holmes no longer feels like an outdated young woman. She’s mean, but complicated. “The Dropout” still tries to humanize him, taking a bit of creative license to imagine personal aspects of his life that we’ll never know. This Hulu-created version of Holmes mourns Gibbons’ death, worries about his company’s lack of viable technology, and even asks his mother what would happen if she left Theranos. But even in this slightly sympathetic take on Holmes, she’s not a sympathetic character.
Streamers know, however, that viewers are mesmerized by unlikable central characters, which translates into views. For example, Netflix recently released a limited series based on a true story about a young crook. The series, “Inventing Anna”, tells the story of Anna Delvey, an infamous and fascinating criminal who is enigmatic in the same way as Elizabeth Holmes – you don’t support her because her actions are just too heinous to be justified; but you want to know more about her, then you will watch 7-10 hour episodes in a weekend. Netflix viewers spent 196 million hours watch “Inventing Anna” between February 14 and 20, making it Netflix’s most-watched English-language series over a one-week period. The show debuted on Friday, February 11, racking up an additional 77 million hours viewed over the weekend of its release.
Unlike “The Dropout”, “Inventing Anna” tells the story of the bogus German heiress through the painstaking reporting of a fictional journalist – the scams and deceptions have already happened as the journalist convinces the victims of these scams to tell their side of the story. Like us, the fictional journalist is thrilled to wonder how a young woman could nearly scam Fortress Investment Group out of millions of dollars.
But Elizabeth Holmes’ story is ultimately scarier than Anna Delvey’s misdeeds. Delvey – whose real surname is Sorokin – simply stole money from incredibly wealthy people, which is of course morally abhorrent, but it doesn’t arouse quite the same rage as Elizabeth Holmes’ society giving ordinary people false medical results, which could be life-threatening.
If “Inventing Anna” was oriented as a linear narrative, it would probably still be entertaining, since she didn’t pose an ever-increasing threat to human health (…only to their wealth). But “The Dropout” just isn’t a fun watch – it’s like shouting “No, don’t!” to the horror movie character who decides to enter a scary house, only this scene lasts eight episodes, and it is based on a true story.
Our attitude towards technology has changed a lot since the release of movies like “The Social Network” (2010), portraying Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as a “tragic hero.” Now, we watch these stories of startup founders with legitimate skepticism, which makes sense in a time when Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen appears on prime-time television, telling us that Facebook prioritizes profits over to the public good. Gone is the excitement of Apple launching the first iPhone (a moment depicted in “The Dropout,” as Hulu’s Holmes lines up outside an Apple Store to buy one). Now we watch Elon Musk bemoan “billionaire taxes” on Twitter, and Jeff Bezos gets richer as Amazon workers fight to win workplace protections.
Perhaps if “The Dropout” had come out around 2018 or so, it would have been a compelling introduction to an important moment in Silicon Valley culture. But for now, it’s more like Hulu’s attempt to cash in on our current cultural fascination with failed startups and scams.