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Like recent Netflix drama Inventing Anna – which focuses on the schemes and trial of ‘fake heiress’ Anna Delvey – The Dropout is an absorbing deep dive into the life of a big-time female scammer. This isn’t the first exploration of Elizabeth Holmes: there’s already been The Dropout podcast and Bad Blood, that was a book then a podcast. But none of these had the key ingredient that makes this new drama soar – Amanda Seyfried.
Holmes is the American businesswoman who scammed millions of dollars out of investors (including £120m from media mogul Rupert Murdoch) for her pharmaceutical start-up Theranos. Once the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire and heralded as ‘the next Steve Jobs’, she lost it all and recently found herself facing criminal charges and decades in prison. With all the drama of a real-life heist, the show explores how her technology, which was meant to revolutionise health care in the US, potentially put millions of patients at risk and how so many people got duped along the way.
The series quickly drops viewers into 1995 and slowly makes its way through Holmes’ teenage years. We see her dad lose his job as Enron goes under in 2001, which lights a fire inside Holmes as she vows to become a billionaire. That’s why she enrols on an immersive Mandarin language course, where she meets Ramesh ‘Sunny’ Balwani – a man almost 20 years older who later becomes her business and life partner.
In 2004, she follows in the footsteps of her hero Steve Jobs and drops out of Stanford to launch healthcare company Theranos – despite being warned her invention will never work by biomedical professors and doctors. A decade on, Holmes is still claiming Theranos’s Edison test can detect conditions such as cancer and diabetes without the hassle of needles – and the business is valued at $9bn. Then US authorities identify a “massive fraud” and the company’s value drops to sub-zero.
Seyfried (Mean Girls, Mamma Mia) is excellent as Holmes and really brings her to life – from an arrogant teen and self-assured 19-year-old who packs in college for start-up life, to a woman facing panic and horror as her dreams start to collapse around her. She’s also got Holmes’ look and voice down to a tee – particularly towards the end of episode three when she pulls on her first black rollneck and begins her transformation from young entrepreneur to strong, in-control CEO.
Naveen Andrews (Lost) is perfectly cast as Sunny. In her January 2022 trial, Holmes alleged that he was controlling and abusive, shifting much of the blame for Theranos’s wrongdoing onto him. However, in the first episodes, he comes across as caring and concerned for her wellbeing, so it will be fascinating to see if her court defence is borne out on screen. The killer cast also features Utkarsh Ambudkar (Tick, Tick…Boom), Kate Burton (Inventing Anna), Stephen Fry (It’s A Sin), Michel Gill (House of Cards), William H. Macy (Fargo), Elizabeth Marvel (True Grit), Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird) and Alan Ruck (Succession), who combine to create a believable tale that will appeal to both newcomers and long-term followers of the story.
Some of The Dropout isn’t subtle. Early on we see Holmes praying to a Steve Jobs poster in her bedroom and later watch her screaming with excitement at the launch of a new iPhone outside an Apple store. But all in, this is a fascinating insight into one of the biggest cons of recent times.
The Dropout is available to watch on Disney+ from today.