Ruddy cheeks and a halo of blonde flyaway hairs—the portrait of Elizabeth Holmes might almost be cherubic were it not for her hauntingly still, icy pupils. A hand raises, thumb quivering, and a deep voice falls out of the woman, swearing to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” This was the scene in a San Francisco courtroom on the morning of July 11, 2017.
Hulu’s newest original docudrama series The Dropout revisits the story of Elizabeth Holmes, infamous CEO of Theranos, a failed biotech startup that promised to revolutionize the blood testing industry one drop of blood at a time. Amanda Seyfried’s uncanny performance as Holmes charts the rise and fall of the woman once named the world’s youngest female self–made billionaire.
Opening sequences of the first episode beckon us into Holmes’ formative years, retracing her awkward, preteen steps. Peering into Holmes’ teenage bedroom, she frenziedly prances around to the sound of Alabama’s “I’m in a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why),” following the news of her father’s layoff as vice president of Enron—a now–bankrupt energy company charged with banking fraud. This early look into Holmes’ instinctual crisis response style foreshadows future scenes capturing her as the center of turbulent relationships and business confrontations.
Supposedly hailing from a long line of inventors and businessmen, a younger Holmes proclaims her sole ambition to become a billionaire with striking sincerity. Like many women before her, she's quickly confronted with the reality women face in professional landscapes—undermined and doubted by colleagues, professors, and investors. But as Holmes stakes her claim in the startup realm as CEO of Theranos, the intangible glass ceiling transforms into a tangible mirror where the audience observes Holmes donning a crimson red lip, practicing a deepened, masculine voice for effect.
One might characterize her stark transformation as a manifestation of borderline psychopathic behavior. Some critics declared that the show fails to successfully humanize Holmes, arguing that she's undeserving of such holistic or forgiving portrayal. Regardless of whether such depiction is justified, viewers are at risk of becoming enthralled by the drama. Like a supernova, Holmes is a star who emits brilliant light, only to explode catastrophically shortly thereafter.
Like many CEOs of the tech startup era, Holmes’ flawed leadership tactics and promises of grandeur only seemed to fuel the dumpster fire that was Theranos circa 2015. The decade following the birth of the startup saw a saturation of highly animated individuals promising to revolutionize technology in unexpected ways. This promise was likely founded in some truth given the novelty of the emerging technology. But, by the time Theranos and Holmes began to lose footing in the promises made to investors and partners, the ideals of global impact through technology were increasingly commonplace. Perhaps like the waning novelty of the startup, docudramas like The Dropout are increasingly destined for obsolescence.
Saturation may be the greatest downfall of technology, and streaming platforms are no stranger to the phenomena. While Hulu’s The Dropout boasts impassioned performances from Seyfried and her co–star Naveen Andrews, playing Holmes’ then–boyfriend Sunny Balwani, the show finds itself among an onslaught of docudrama series released in recent years—ultimately a singular drop in a vast ocean. Hulu is in close company with other streaming platforms churning out TV series, documentaries, and movies in the docudrama/biopic genre, Time Magazine even coining the term “docu–mania.”
In the scramble for viewers, streaming platforms have found success in monetizing shocking, true stories and current events, with an exponentially shrinking production period. It appears any pop culture event of significance is destined to be repackaged and produced over the span of a few short years, or even months. In a dramatic instance, the tragedy of Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival led to Hulu uploading a journalistic account, Astroworld: Concert from Hell, only a month after the original event occurred.
While the saturation of docudramas in recent years reflects the succinct repackaging viewers desire most, such desires do not come without danger.
Viewers might do well to question the appeal of media inspired by true events. Audiences should think about whether there are consequences of spinning such tales into multimillion–dollar projects, garnering widespread success and critical acclaim. When true stories become dramatized for consumption, viewers are at risk of experiencing a disconnect from the truths strewn throughout and at the heart of the storylines.
Hulu recently chose to roll out its original shows in staggered releases, initially dropping a bundle of episodes, then releasing subsequent episodes on a weekly basis. This approach is atypical for a streaming platform, but it provides the opportunity for viewers to interact with episodes and ruminate on week–to–week developments, particularly with drama series. The Dropout has followed this format, currently sitting at five episodes, with a total of eight planned. There is hope that as the storyline develops, depicting the mounting challenges Theranos and Holmes face, the show will construe a holistic representation of the missteps and bad–faith promises made at the biotech startup. It's yet to be determined whether truth and entertainment can coexist in the modern media landscape.
Perhaps media creatives can only try to recount true events in an accessible, honest manner. But as Yoda, and the once–Theranos lobby wall, proclaim: “Do or do not. There is no try.”