Egos on Parade: Unpacking The Dropout and More Company Scandal Stories Cluttering Our Screens

Emmy nominee Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes in The Dropout led the charge of true stories on TV about big ideas and the complicated people who have them.

By Natalie Finn Sep 11, 2022 12:00 PMTags
Watch: "The Dropout" Stars Share FILMING SECRETS

Was anyone else sort of unmoved back in 2010 when they heard a movie was coming out about the guy who started Facebook?

Sure, you were on Facebook, to stay in touch with old friends, remember birthdays and share what you were up to with what was perhaps at first a carefully curated list of people that eventually turned into friends-of-friends and other algorithmically linked strangers.

But who cared how the sausage was made?

Well, as it turned out, The Social Network—based on Ben Mezrich's 2009 book The Accidental Billionaires—was as gripping as any thriller, enhanced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' Oscar-winning score and anchored by Jesse Eisenberg's portrayal of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as an ingenious but socially stunted visionary with an axe to grind for the girl who dumped him at Harvard. 

2022 Emmy Nominations: Stars React

The David Fincher-directed film isn't exactly true crime, though the action—Academy Awards also went to the editing and Aaron Sorkin's screenplay—includes the litigation that ensnarled Facebook's origin story. But the movie definitely had that aura about it, as if we were watching something rather sinister unfold as the social media website took off.

Which, we were.

Columbia Pictures/Entertainment Pictures/

To be fair, you don't create a world-changing product—or become a billionaire, for that matter—without possessing certain attributes, including a level of patience, perseverance, magnetism and confidence-brimming-on-mania that most people tapping away at their keyboards just don't have. And the fast-paced tech world, financed by deep-pocketed venture capitalists and boasting a language all its own (IPOs, angel investors, unicorns, SPACs, etc.) can't help but attract big personalities.

Or quietly determined types, who have an idea and will stop at nothing to get it off the ground.

Shutterstock; AppleTV+; Showtime; Hulu; Melissa Herwitt/E! Illustration

The Social Network wasn't the first epic about tech bros—the 1999 cable movie The Pirates of Silicon Valley, starring Anthony Michael Hall and Noah Wyle, respectively, as O.G. disruptors Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, was deemed a "wildly entertaining geek tragedy" by Varietybut it set the template, first, for dueling all-star Jobs biopics and a slew of content set in that world, and for the current glut of ripped-from-the-headlines TV and film projects about big ideas and the distinctively flawed people who have them.

2022 TV Transformations

Amanda Seyfried is now Emmy-nominated for best actress in a limited series, anthology or movie for her portrayal of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes in The Dropout. As it turned out, her blood-testing company didn't really offer a product that could scan a single drop of blood for dozens of conditions, thereby revolutionizing the health care industry and saving millions of people from unnecessary pain and inconvenience.

But oh did Holmes, with her Jobsian black turtleneck and low register, create a lot of excitement and raise hundreds of millions of dollars making it seem as if it did.

The mass delusion aspect of it all certainly attracted Vice and Don't Look Up director Adam McKay, who's planning his own take on the disgraced entrepreneur, Bad Blood, starring Jennifer Lawrence. That title is based on the investigative book of the same name by John Carreyrou, the Wall Street Journal reporter who first blew the lid off of Theranos' rampant in-house issues and corporate malfeasance committed under the noses of board members who remained in thrall to the company's charismatic young founder.

Beth Dubber/Hulu

We don't begrudge a years-in-the-making telling of a consequential story, but by the time the Apple TV+-bound film comes out, how much more of Holmes will audiences be clamoring to unpack?

In fact, how much more do they feel the need to unpack now with The Dropout, whose narrative arc was derived from a hit ABC News podcast of the same name that was very entertaining in its own right?

2022 TV Premiere Dates

Seyfried, who at first passed on the role for logistical reasons but ultimately stepped in after Kate McKinnon exited the series, insisted there was more to understand about Holmes that had not come through in the more clinical reporting about her (of which there's been tons, including the 2019 HBO documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley).

For starters, the actress explained to E! News in February, The Dropout sheds more light on the relationship Holmes had with her Theranos co-founder and then-romantic partner Ramesh "Sunny" Balwani (played by Naveen Andrews)—who, Holmes testified at her trial, was emotionally abusive and controlling and therefore much more responsible for the dysfunction at Theranos than she was.

Beth Dubber/Hulu

Holmes, who's facing a maximum of 20 years in prison, was convicted in January of four counts of defrauding her investors and found not guilty of four counts of patient fraud, while the jury deadlocked on three other investor-related fraud counts. Her sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 26.

Balwani—who was facing the same dozen charges and like Holmes pleaded not guilty across the board—was found guilty in July of all 12 counts of wire fraud and conspiracy. He remains free on bail; sentencing is set for Nov. 15.

"Lies, deceit, and criminal actions cannot replace innovation and success," FBI Special Agent Sean Ragan said in a statement after the verdict.

Holmes and Balwani's bond "doesn't make sense from the distance that we're all seeing it as audience members of the documentary, of the podcast, of the book," Seyfried told E!. "When you watch it from The Dropout's perspective, it makes so much more sense. We're giving a lot of clarity and a lot of context to something that was very, very, very real."

David Orrell/CNBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Also very real: Holmes' flagrant wrongdoing. 

Which, series director Michael Showalter told Collider, is where the twisted nuances of her story kick in.

"The beginning, the first couple episodes, kind of get you rooting for her and feeling for her, and she's deserving of that," he explained. "But then she just makes some terrible, terrible decisions, and those decisions are motivated, probably. It's in understanding what motivates those terrible decisions that some deeper, problematic aspect of her nature comes out.

"It's complicated because, at a certain point, the trauma or the pain is no longer a viable excuse for some of the bad decisions that she's making. So you feel pulled in multiple directions because you sort of like her, but then you're so mad at her, and you start hating her because she's so cruel. She can be so cruel and so reckless."

Admittedly, it was difficult to read Bad Blood and not be disturbed by how so many people wholeheartedly supported Holmes' endeavor for as long as they did, even once it was seemingly clear that something was not right. So, The Dropout is taking a stab at explaining it.

"If I can put you in the room, then maybe you might have a sense of how it could have happened," Showalter said, "because you might know what it'd feel like to be in that sushi restaurant with all those guys from Walgreens." (Without knowing whether the Theranos technology was reliable or not, Carreyrou reported in Bad Blood, Walgreens committed to buying $50 million worth of the testing devices for its stores.)

For those who love an Icarus story, the director added, "I hope that on some level, people are able to see that we are all somewhat responsible for this. That it would be very easy to just kind of make it all about her and just say, 'Oh, she's crazy. And she's a narcissist or whatever.' But we all wanted it to be true. So we're really all responsible in a way."

Elizabeth Morris/SHOWTIME

Debatable, but the royal we certainly didn't help Travis Kalanick temper his high-flying aspirations.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the brash and similarly youthful-looking Uber co-founder in the first season of the Showtime anthology series Super Pumped, from Billions co-creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien (who plan to tackle Facebook next). Unlike Holmes, Kalanick produced a service that both worked and altered the transportation landscape as the world knew it, ushering in the era of the gig economy in the process.

But much like Holmes, Kalanick was the larger-than-life face of his business—and, in 2017, he resigned as CEO of Uber amid allegations he'd been presiding over a toxic workplace and mishandled a sexual harassment investigation within the company. Board member and venture capitalist Bill Gurley (Kyle Chandler) helped lead the charge to oust him.

Theo Wargo/WireImage, Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch

"We ought to be talking about these stories," Gordon-Levitt told E! News of his interest in portraying the complicated Kalanick, a Silicon Valley rock star whose rise and fall the actor compared to that of Freddie Mercury or Ray Charles (both of whom rose again and remain posthumously revered; Kalanick is still a billionaire, so he wasn't exactly ruined). 

Koppelman and Leviev, drawing from Mike Isaac's 2019 book The Battle for Uber, "are great at making entertainment that'll provide you the fireworks and will be fun to watch," Gordon-Levitt said, "but also ask those questions about what's really going on in the world. This one asks a lot of questions about what we reward, in our economy and in our culture: Someone who's just going to win at all costs and prioritize profits over everything."

Elizabeth Morris/SHOWTIME

And "this isn't just Uber and this isn't just Silicon Valley," he noted. "This is how our system works right now...There's a reason why figures throughout history, who are doing ethically questionable things, get so popular. It comes from a certain energy, and I wanted to find that energy."

Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway Are Combustible Lovers in the Trailer For WeCrashed

Meanwhile, a certain energy radiated from the very promise of Jared Leto chewing scenery as WeWork founder Adam Neumann in Apple TV+'s ripped-from-the-Wondery-podcast show WeCrashed. The limited series co-stars Anne Hathaway as Adam's glamorous wife and fellow executive Rebekah Neumann (who, according to Bloomberg News, is a cousin of Gwyneth Paltrow.)

Leto unsurprisingly underwent a "complete transformation, with prosthetics and an Israeli accent," series co-creator Lee Eisenberg told Entertainment Weekly, and stayed in character throughout last summer's shoot.

Apple TV+

Headquartered in New York but Silicon Valley-reminiscent due to Neumann's grand vision of providing tricked-out shared workspace accommodations—a "physical social network," he called it—for tech employees and startups all over the world, WeWork was valued at $47 billion and on the verge of going public in 2019. But its estimated worth plummeted when reports surfaced of the CEO's questionable financials and alleged mistreatment of staff, and instead the company ended up on the verge of bankruptcy.

Neumann resigned as chief executive but sold his WeWork shares to investor SoftBank, as well as received a reported $185 million consulting fee—all of which was also chronicled in the 2021 documentary WeWork: Or The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, which is streaming on Hulu. 

"I've had a lot of time to think, and there have been multiple lessons, multiple regrets," he told Andrew Ross Sorkin at the New York Times DealBook conference last November. But at first, he noted, the concept was "working out phenomenally." (Incidentally, their talk is Emmy-nominated for Outstanding Live Interview at the 43rd Annual News & Documentary Awards, to be presented Sept. 28-29.)

So in this case we have a series about another rock star type with a big idea, making big promises, living large and misfiring spectacularly but then walking away still obscenely rich, even after the lawyers have been paid. (See: Gordon-Levitt's criticism of the system.) And in August, Neumann surfaced with news of his latest venture, a real estate start-up called Flow that has no lesser aim than to transform the rental housing market, and which has attracted a reported $350 million in funding from Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.

Apple TV+, Theo Wargo/WireImage

"What separates it from other things we've seen in this genre is that we watch the story through the prism of this couple," Eisenberg explained to EW. "We see this cult of personality within the business story, and then come home with them at night."

Moreover, he said, "I think it's a little bit of a cautionary tale. We as a society get swept up in unicorns and this idea that you can get rich quick. I mean, Adam Neumann unironically said that he wanted to be a trillionaire. That's just wild."

Rise or fall, the story of WeWork always had the air of the cinematic. As reported in a 2019 New York Times story about the improbable upward trajectory of WeWork's ex-leader while the still-chugging company continued to hemorrhage cash:

"Famously, in 2017, Mr. Neumann spent just 12 minutes walking [SoftBank CEO] Mr. Son around WeWork's headquarters, prompting an investment of $4.4 billion. Afterward, an elated Mr. Neumann zoomed uptown in the back seat of his chauffeured white Maybach, blaring rap, with an iPad open to a rendering of the hasty digital spit-swear he'd just made with Mr. Son."

It's almost as if he knew people would be watching.

The Dropout is streaming on Hulu, Super Pumped on Showtime Anytime and WeCrashed on Apple TV+.

(Originally published March 5, 2022, at 7 a.m. PT)

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