*Contains spoilers for the series up to the finale.*
The era of Peak-TV appears to be going through a grifter stage right now, and not just any grifter too. Maybe it’s that the stories are high profile, or maybe it’s because television writers are trying to make sense of having gone through four years of a US president that was mired in a feeling that some sort of con was being committed before our very eyes, but with the Disney +/Hulu drama The Dropout premiering amongst a sea of series such as Inventing Anna, WeCrashed and even true crime documentaries such as The Tinder Swindler and Trust No One where the stakes are high and the rewards even bigger if you get away with it, US television has a lot it wants to say on high profile crime.
Elizabeth Meriwether’s exploration of the world of Theranos and its creator Elizabeth Holmes is perhaps the best example of this type of story. For the past few weeks, it has been one of the very best series on television.
There is a flexibility of tone that doesn’t come as a big surprise given that Merirwether was the creator of New Girl and the first batch of episodes were directed by The Big Sick’s Michael Showalter. Both New Girl and The Big Sick were very funny but had their moments of occasional dramatic heft, and The Dropout is no exception to that.
It uses a great soundtrack to glorious effect and revels in Amanda Seyfried’s recreation of Holmes herself, capturing the voice and posture to comedic effect at times, but also pointing out why a woman would have to recreate herself in a corporate world defined so much by a never-ending sea of men.
Holmes herself had to contend with chauvinism, but the series never lets its sympathies lie too long with her. An early episode details her sexual assault, but never in graphic detail and in a manner that is very tastefully and powerfully done, but as the series goes on through its eight-episode run, the satirical bent of those earlier chapters and its criticism of the shallow stupidity at times of the world of corporate business dominated by a need to earn so much money, shifts towards something darker, even feeling at various points like it might turn into a horror movie.
Holmes herself and her need to protect her secrets and the business she has set up becomes something she is clearly wanting to succeed that not only is she willing to risk life, but when a close friend, Ian Gibbons (Stephen Fry, who is tremendous here), could potentially ruin her by testifying against her with his knowledge of her unethical business practices, commits suicide instead of leaving himself open to either being sued or destroying his career, she sees it as another win and feather in her cap. It’s never played as an overtly dastardly or ‘evil’ moment, but in a quietly intense way that feels like one of the most genuinely disturbing pieces of character development portrayed in any recent television series.
There is amazing work here from the entire cast. Seyfriend as mentioned before is superb, but Naveen Andrews, Laurie Metcalf, Stephen Fry and a supporting cast dotted with familiar names and faces are all memorable, each one getting their moment to shine, but this is Seyfried’s show.
Part of the audience in the earlier episodes will find themselves sympathetic, but it dissipates the more it goes on and before you know it you realise you have watched the creation of a character that is more villainous than you might have expected.
The naivety of her earlier years at trying to create her empire, the empty-headedness of wanting to succeed like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, right down to the hipster office with Yoda quote on the walls, eventually subsides and turns into someone who will screw over everyone in order to break the glass ceiling for women in big business simply because she knows it will make her look good. As we’re reminded by her former professor Phyllis Gardner (played with subtle scene-stealing power by the always brilliant Laurie Metcalf), Holmes might think she’s a crusader for women, but she’s potentially closing off any potential opportunities for other women again if her fraudulent behaviour is discovered, which we inevitably know is going to happen come the final episodes.
The shallowness of her world, her ambitions and her behaviour are not just a series falling into line with the influx of high profile grifter stories filling up streaming services and television schedules right now, it’s an indictment of how the success stories of the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and the Elon Musk are potentially creating a toxic brand of role model that is unachievable unless you’re willing to risk lives and put those you call friends into the crosshairs of moral and ethical decisions that will lead them to hurt themselves in terrible ways.
You can see the hope and promise in Holmes’ eyes at the beginning of the series, the potential for something great, but it eventually subsides in favour of achieving power, riches and the status of importance instead of trying to make the blood testing machine she wants to make her name with actually work.
Perhaps this is what gives The Dropout such power over other high profile series of a similar ilk like Inventing Anna on Netflix and Apple’s WeCrashed; the story of Holmes involved the second-biggest pharmacy chain in America and the world of US health care, still to this day a political hotbed in the US due to both sides of the political aisle’s difference of opinion when it comes to how it should be regulated.
For all the humour that is dotted around here (and some of this is occasionally very funny), the tone shifts in such a way by the second half that you find yourself not looking at The Dropout anymore as a satirical work but as something darker, angrier and even scarier.
The higher the stakes get, the more success and the higher profile she gains, the more Holmes feels like a character straight out of a thriller or even worse. When two of her employees, Tyler Schultz (Dylan Minnette) and Erika Cheung (Camryn Mi-young Kim) start the ball rolling to get her ethics exposed, the series feels more akin to a high stakes conspiracy drama with horror movie overtones, where all of a sudden the lab that we’ve spent all season watching feels more like something out of an X-Files episode, and where the whole world feels like it’s gone mad because nobody will believe them.
It’s a subtle change that sneaks up on you and like the best true stories you can’t help but sit there aghast that any of this was ever allowed to happen. It makes for incredibly enthralling viewing and is already a contender for one of the best television series of 2022.
The Dropout is available now on HULU and Disney+ in the UK.