‘The Dropout’ review: Amanda Seyfried leads TV’s latest scammer drama

Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried), shown. (Photo by: Beth Dubber/Hulu)

Once upon a time, network TV dramas were the best place to find the blend of comforting familiarity and challenging storytelling that feels so unique to the television medium. These days, however, the balance has shifted, and a new kind of watchable drama has risen to take their place: the "ripped from the headlines" prestige miniseries.

This year has offered an explosion of them, from the ’90s saga of "Pam & Tommy" to the contemporary scammer story "Inventing Anna," the Silicon Valley drama "Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber," Peacock’s "Joe vs. Carole" and the upcoming series "WeCrashed." 

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Beneath the sheen of their movie star casts and glossy cinematography, these kinds of limited series are often just a little bit rote in the way they stretch out their stories to fill an 8-10 episode order. Hanging over them is the question of whether they might have been better as a two-hour movie than a lengthy miniseries. And though they aren’t exactly meant to be something you just throw on in the background, they tend to be heavy on dialogue and exposition in a way that ensures they don’t totally lose their punch if you, say, fold your laundry while you’re watching them either. 

Hulu’s new Elizabeth Holmes drama "The Dropout" fits squarely into that mold — and that’s not entirely a knock against it. Like a lot of these ripped-from-the-headlines series, "The Dropout" is supremely watchable, with solid-to-great performances and a story so audacious you wouldn’t believe it if it weren’t based on real life. Yet this jaw-dropping true story ultimately feels less like a truly original piece of television than something just a touch formulaic. 


Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews) and Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried), shown. (Photo by: Beth Dubber/Hulu) 

What "The Dropout" does have to recommend it is Amanda Seyfried. The "Mamma Mia" star plays Holmes, the would-be biotech entrepreneur turned convicted fraudster, from her late high school years through her mid-30s, a period that includes the rise and fall of Theranos, her health tech startup that promised portable, accessible health screenings from a single drop of blood. (If that sounds like a pipe dream, that’s because it turned out to be one.)

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Seyfried particularly shines in the first three episodes, which tell an origin story of sorts for the black turtleneck-clad Holmes persona that captured the public’s imagination, even before she became a poster child for tech fraud. Teenage Elizabeth is both impressive in her determined self-confidence and off-putting in her egotism and lack of social ease. It’s a duality that explains the divisive way people respond to her — either hailing her as the next generation of kick-ass female tech disrupters or immediately spotting her as a huckster. 

Seyfried excels at locking into Elizabeth’s odd duck qualities, particularly the way her noble big-picture aims clash with her lack of small-scale interpersonal empathy. There’s a stunner of a scene in which Elizabeth coldly examines the emotions of a stranger and then applies them, as an actor might, in a last ditch effort to save her role in her company — weaponizing her age and gender as tools she can use to manipulate those around her. Whatever core of naivete and idealism might have driven Elizabeth’s early ambitions quickly sours as she makes a pointed shift into a "whatever it takes" mindset. 


Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews) and Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried), shown. (Photo by: Beth Dubber/Hulu) 

The trouble is, once the show locks Elizabeth into CEO mode, the story loses its central driving force, instead becoming a more nuts-and-bolts thriller/procedural laying out the details of this stranger-than-fiction story. Based on Rebecca Jarvis’ podcast of the same name, "The Dropout" is almost reporterly in its straightforward recounting of the Holmes saga.

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There’s a murderer’s row of talented supporting players onboard, including the likes of Stephen Fry, William H. Macy, Laurie Metcalf, Sam Waterston, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Michaela Watkins, Alan Ruck and Naveen Andrews as Elizabeth’s much-older boyfriend/business partner Sunny Balwani. But their various roles within the Theranos saga often feel tangential and episodic in a way that doesn’t always add up to something greater than the sum of its parts. And though creator Elizabeth Meriwether ("New Girl") and frequent director Michael Showalter ("The Big Sick") sometimes offer glimmers of satirical dark comedy (particularly in Elizabeth’s fondness for exuberant dance parties to mid 2000s pop hits), the series relies on Seyfried’s performance and its wild real-life story more so than any defining sense of style. 

That makes "The Dropout" interesting but also a bit unchallenging. Although — given the role these limited series now fill in our contemporary TV landscape — perhaps that’s as much a feature as it is a bug. 

Eight-episode biographical miniseries. Seven episodes screened for review. First three episodes streaming on Hulu March 3. New episodes arrive weekly through April 7. Featuring: Amanda Seyfried, Naveen Andrews, Stephen Fry, William H. Macy, Laurie Metcalf, Sam Waterston, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Elizabeth Marvel,Michaela Watkins, Kate Burton, Alan Ruck, Dylan Minnette, Bill Irwin, Camryn Mi-young Kim, Ebon Moss-Bachrach.

Grade: B

About the writer: Caroline Siede is a film and TV critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, she lovingly dissects the romantic comedy genre one film at a time in her ongoing column When Romance Met Comedy at The A.V. Club. She also co-hosts the movie podcast, Role Calling, and shares her pop culture opinions on Twitter (@carolinesiede).

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