tv review

The Dropout Hits the Scammer Sweet Spot

Photo: Beth Dubber/ HULU

What do we want in a show about a scam? This year offers numerous opportunities to ask that question — Inventing Anna, WeCrashed, Super Pumped, Joe vs. Carole — but most of those series leave it unanswered, or answered in the negative (“I don’t know what I want in a scam show, but it’s not this”). Part of the problem is that the scam show has too many points of appeal, and they’re all achingly obvious. Most of them are about recent, high-profile news stories, so there’s the real-life reenactment factor. They’re stories about money and power and, even better, money and power plus at least one person’s an idiot — sounds like a guaranteed home run! Then there’s the corporate-America aspect of it and the Robin Hood–esque rob-from-the-rich potential. All of them seem like such easy targets to hit. The trouble is that it’s also easy to be sloppy about it, to turn the prime scammer target into something muddled and unsatisfying. Too often, it feels like we’re being insufficiently scammed.

It turns out that what I want in a scam show is The Dropout, Hulu’s new series about Elizabeth Holmes, creator of the blood-testing company Theranos. None of it would work without the lead performance by Amanda Seyfried, who somehow conveys all of Holmes’s eccentricities and tics without begging for laughs or denying their absurdity. Her Holmes has elements of impersonation, but it’s much more an interpretation of the person and her motivations. She is someone who desperately wants success and can’t interrogate that within herself, someone who lacks empathy on the individual level but imagines things on a grand scale of sweeping social improvement, and someone who feels she can be comfortable in the world only if she remakes the world to fit herself.

A key ingredient in the recipe for any scam show is a central figure who has galvanized people’s attention and put on such a successful demonstration of competence that everyone has given them money. But a great scam show needs an element of portraiture to illuminate that principal scammer. If they’re just monsters, or if they’re given flashbacks to backfill motivation and shore up their current predicament, it all fits together too neatly. (There is no more boring form of character development than a straight, bold line drawn from one childhood event to an adult personality.) The Dropout succeeds because of Seyfried’s work as Holmes, but it’s also a messier portrait of Holmes’s youth, one that leads to a much more nuanced and multifaceted image of her by the time Theranos is in full swing.

There are a few framing-device images of Holmes in CEO mode in the introductory episodes — the first three of which premiere this Thursday, followed by a weekly rollout — to remind us where we’re going, but for the most part, the series begins with Holmes as a young woman and then stays there for quite a while, allowing her to be shaped by multiple events and desires. High-school Holmes is already revving her engines for some massive entrepreneurial takeover, a desire she has long before she connects it to any specific area of innovation. She wants to be a huge, famous business-world star. At the same time, The Dropout refuses to oversimplify her ego. She longs for an undeniable position of power and ownership, and, yes, it is born out of both her idolatry of Steve Jobs and the humiliation of seeing her father in a precarious financial situation. It’s also just who she is, in some ineffable and inexplicable way. The Dropout registers this not just through Holmes but also in the way other people react to her: Her colleagues, her teachers, even her parents ping-pong back and forth between adoration and discomfort.

The Dropout’s Holmes is a careful collage of so many traits. She is cruel and unthinking, driven, insecure, desperate, utterly self-interested, focused; she is also a hilariously basic white kid with her iPod cranked up to 100, singing songs primarily drawn from Apple ads and punching the air in frustration and triumph. The series includes Holmes’s account of being raped in college, and it spends a lot of energy in the relationship between Holmes and Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews), her much older boyfriend–business partner–mentor–alleged abuser. All of it helps color Holmes and her world; none of it comes off as an excuse.

That delicate portraiture is where most scam shows falter and where The Dropout really pulls ahead of the competition. It also nails the snowballing sensation of the scam itself, the way Theranos begins as a sincere dream and slowly becomes a pile of lies and manipulation. Even when the house of cards stands tallest, The Dropout is careful to make clear that it’s all still supposedly in service of the admirable dream — it’s just also increasingly divorced from the damage caused by all that faking it until someone figures out how to make it.

The Dropout handles that transition from quixotic hopefulness into nightmarish denial so, so well. At the beginning, it’s almost a coming-of-age story in which the rising drama is less about what’s happening within the company and more about watching Holmes transform into herself. The decision to give us multiple scenes in which Holmes practices and experiments with her bizarre, artificially deep voice is particularly strong. Something that weird and mannered only works when you can see it being built from the ground floor.

This is another area in which The Dropout excels where so many scam shows fall short. It’s not a romp; it’s not a send-up of this goofy, wacky lady with her fake blood-testing and her black turtlenecks. But it’s not a bleak march to destruction, either. There is a perpetual, well-calibrated dance between acknowledging the gravity of this scammy company’s actions and allowing voices within the show to express how ridiculous Holmes has become. Some of that happens with music: The needle drops become a light form of commentary on these characters without tipping over into full, gratuitous winking at the audience. Even more of it happens on the level of the supporting characters, who are taken in by Holmes but also have opportunities to layer in humor. It helps that the supporting cast is all hits, no skips, especially thanks to Andrews, Laurie Metcalf, Stephen Fry, Elizabeth Marvel, LisaGay Hamilton, Kevin Sussman, and Alan Ruck. (This list could honestly have ten more names on it.)

The appeal of a great scam show extends beyond the scam or the show. In almost every instance, they are invitations to examine Americanism more broadly. Which aspect in particular depends a little on the scam: Inventing Anna is more about influencer culture and individual wealth; Joe vs. Carole gets into personal freedoms and the myth of mastery of one’s own domain; The Dropout is one of a trio of new shows about start-up culture, venture capital, and corporatism. But the desire to make that connection explicit often turns into something blunt, inept, or reductive. “Corporations are bad” is hardly news. “Weird people are weird!” is even less so. Without that gesture at something bigger, these shows can feel so hollow.

No scam show to date has negotiated this better than The Dropout. Holmes is idiosyncratic, and Theranos is its own distinct world of catastrophe, but the show also reflects ideas about American individualism and tech culture without making them so overt that it’s distracting. I would love to say that The Dropout is a blueprint for what scam shows should be, but I suspect that, much like a Theranos blood test, its results will be hard to replicate.

The Dropout Hits the Scammer Sweet Spot