“I am expecting quite a show.”
I didn’t realize how prophetic my words would be when ABC News correspondent Rebecca Jarvis asked in early September what I was expecting on the opening day of a high-profile trial dissecting an alleged scam orchestrated by fallen Silicon Valley star Elizabeth Holmes.
The interview became part of Jarvis’ podcast, “The Dropout,” revolving around the trial the culminated in Holmes’ Jan. 3 conviction on four counts of fraud tied to the nearly $1 billion invested in Theranos, a blood-testing company that she founded at age 19 after dropping out of Stanford.
Now that she is facing a likely prison sentence, Holmes’ meteoric rise and mortifying collapse has been turned into “The Dropout,” a highly entertaining Hulu TV series based on the podcast and other sources that delved into a drama that shined a bright light on Silicon Valley’s dark side.
Holmes, who faces 20 years in prison when she’s sentenced in September, turned 38 last month while out on bail while living on a luxurious Silicon Valley estate.
The eight-episode series, which begins streaming Thursday, draws upon some of the evidence that emerged during that trial, particularly texts between Holmes and her former lover and business partner, Sunny Balwani. Other material had been previously laid out in the book, “Bad Blood,” by former Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou whose 2015 stories exposed the flaws in Theranos’ technology and the 2019 HBO documentary, “The Inventor.”
But the Hulu series breathes life into Holmes’ saga like no other while also telling the stories of a cast of characters who were charmed, reviled and otherwise affected by her quest to become a billionaire and perhaps change the world along the way, much like her idol, the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Showrunner Elizabeth Merriwether told The Associated Press she took “some poetic license, but in a thoughtful way” as she infused the saga with even more drama.
The series uses the real names of everyone involved with one notable exception, Theranos’ former lab director, Adam Rosendorff, who spent five days on the witness stand during the trial, much of the time sparring with one of Holmes’ lawyers, Lance Wade. Merriwether cited unspecified legal reasons for identifying Rosendorff’s character as Mark Roessler in the series, even though anyone who knows Holmes’ story will realize who it really is.
Other people featured in “The Dropout” who factored into the trial include former Theranos employee and key whistleblower, Erika Cheung and former Walgreens CEO Wade Miquelon, who both were called to stand by federal prosecutors; Carreyrou, who came to court six of the seven days Holmes testified, ensuring he had a seat in her direct line of vision of her; and Holmes ‘mom Noel (who came to court every day holding her daughter’s hand on the way in and out), and her father de ella, Chris, who only came for closing arguments and the jury deliberations that led to the verdict.
The series also illuminates the roles of people we heard about during the trial but didn’t take the stand. That includes another whistleblower, Tyler Shultz, and his grandfather, Theranos board member, former US Secretary State, George Shultz, who died last year before the trial began. In this series, Tyler is depicted as a courageous hero while his grandfather comes across as an aging statesman better suited for negotiating with world leaders than for seeing through Holmes’ charms.
Another character whose name came up during the trial but whose full story wasn’t allowed to be fully told was Ian Gibbons, a chemist who joined Theranos not long after Holmes founded the company in 2003. Gibbons died in 2013 after taking an overdose of pills before he was supposed to testify in a patent lawsuit filed against Holmes, who is depicted in the series hailing his demise as a victory.
The series also cast Oracle founder and Silicon Valley icon Larry Ellison as playing a pivotal part in Holmes’ saga that went beyond his role as an early Theranos investor. “The Dropout” depicts Ellison delivering a sermon that transforms Holmes from a giddy young girl prone to dancing to pop music and blurting out “Awesome!” into a ruthless entrepreneur determined to do whatever it takes to “get the (expletive) money!” (Merriwether acknowledged she doesn’t know if anything like that scene actually happened, but defended it as a fair portrayal of Ellison as Holmes’ mentor.)
And then there is Balwani, who was banned from attending her trial after she alleged his sexual and emotional abuse of her may have contributed to whatever misconduct occurred at the company. Balwani’s specter loomed large throughout the trial, including the afternoon when Holmes spelled out her abuse allegations of her during two hours of occasionally tearful testimony.
Naveen Andrews depicts Balwani, 56, so well in “The Dropout” that it is likely to intensity interest in his criminal trial, which is scheduled to begin with jury selection on March 9.
But the series ultimately belongs to Amanda Seyfried, who manages to capture both Holmes’ magnetism and creepiness. In an interview, Seyfried traced her performance of her to the kinship she felt as she studied Holmes and realized they shared common interests growing up, including a love of dance. “I never expected to feel such a camaraderie right from the jump,” she said.
At times, Seyfried makes Holmes seem like an almost sympathetic figure who may have been warped by her family and Balwani. But at other times Seyfried is chilling as she practices deepening her once-girlish voice in front of a mirror, or perfects the unblinking stare Holmes routinely beamed at people throughout the trial.
It’s a tale that hopefully will help discourage sequels by other blindly ambitious entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley’s cauldron of creativity and charlatans.
Liedtke has been covering Silicon Valley for the AP for more than 20 years. AP Entertainment Reporter Amanda Lee Myers contributed to this story.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.