In the first episode of the new Hulu miniseries “The Dropout,” a young woman studies a 1990s-era poster of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, her expression a mix of admiration and envy.
But this is not the prologue to a story of Silicon Valley greatness. The woman is Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried), and “The Dropout” is a twisty tale of wild ambition, duplicity and comeuppance.
Hulu’s series is one of at least three new shows debuting this year that take a decidedly skeptical view of the American technology industry and the hard-driving but embattled founders who purportedly make it run.
“The Dropout” joins the Showtime anthology drama “Super Pumped,” a portrait of macho arrogance and tactical ruthlessness inside Uber, and Apple TV+’s limited series “WeCrashed,” an account of the rise and fall of the office space startup WeWork. (“Super Pumped” premiered in late February; “WeCrashed” debuts March 18.)
Big Tech titans appear to be the new TV antiheroes — small-screen villains who command our attention despite their alleged misdeeds, or maybe because of them.
TV producers have recruited big-name actors. “Super Pumped” stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as former Uber chief Travis Kalanick, who resigned in 2017 amid scandals over workplace culture and privacy issues. “WeCrashed” stars Oscar-winning actors Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway as Adam and Rebekah Neumann, the couple at the center of a spectacular techworld implosion.
“The Dropout” was created by Elizabeth Meriwether, a writer and producer previously best known for the Zooey Deschanel sitcom “New Girl.” Meriwether adapted the Hulu series from a podcast of the same name hosted by ABC News journalist Rebecca Jarvis and assembled an ensemble of familiar faces, anchored by Seyfried as the eponymous Stanford University dropout.
‘She’s such a mystery’
Meriwether saw the eight-episode TV version of “The Dropout” as a chance to go deeper into the saga of Theranos and Holmes, who was convicted in January of misleading investors into believing her blood-testing startup had created a revolutionary medical device.
But in many respects, Holmes remains an enigma to Meriwether.
“In this particular story, the deeper you dig, the less understanding you have,” Meriwether said with a laugh in a recent Zoom interview. “She’s such a mystery — and, for me, she continues to be a mystery even after working on the show.”
Meriwether is not the first creator to find rich psychological drama in Holmes’ ascent and Theranos’ crash.
“Don’t Look Up” director Adam McKay will direct Jennifer Lawrence in a movie adaptation of “Bad Blood,” a bestselling book by The Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou. The prolific documentarian Alex Gibney chronicled Holmes’ fall from grace in HBO’s “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley” released in 2019.
“I tried to think deeply about what was going on emotionally for her, because I felt like that was part of the story I could tell, as a dramatist, that reporters couldn’t tell. I could imagine what being a fly on the wall would be like,” Meriwether said.
Michael Showalter (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”), who directed the first four episodes of “The Dropout,” said he felt similarly compelled to “put the audience in the room,” creating an intimacy that might be difficult to find in court documents or strictly journalistic accounts.
The deeper you dig, the less understanding you have.
‘THE DROPOUT’ CREATOR ON HOLMES
“I want to feel like I’m in the room and I can see all the little looks going back and forth” in the offices of Theranos, Showalter said.
But in bringing Jarvis’ podcast to Hulu, Meriwether also saw an opportunity to explore our society’s conflicted relationship with tech, the big egos of the Bay Area and the more troubling dimensions of startup culture, which were once goofily skewered on HBO’s “Silicon Valley.”
“It feels like where we are right now is a reckoning with all of those stories the tech companies told us in the early days,” she said. “The mythologizing around CEOs and the feeling that these companies could do no wrong and were only a force for good in our lives.”
‘It’s about facts’
“The Dropout,” “Super Pumped” and “WeCrashed” might be part of a wider cultural trend some have labeled “the techlash” — growing animus towards Silicon Valley firms over everything from privacy issues and monopoly power to social media hate speech.
“It seems there is a re-examining of what liberties we afford to people who, through sheer force of will and charisma, get whatever they want,” Showalter said. “What are we willing to put up with? What are the limitations on propping that person up?”
“WeCrashed” showrunner Lee Eisenberg, who was once a writer and director on NBC’s “The Office,” has described the Apple TV+ series as a “cautionary tale.”
“We as a society get swept up in unicorns and this idea that you can get rich quick,” Eisenberg told Entertainment Weekly in December. “I mean, Adam Neumann unironically said that he wanted to be a trillionaire. That’s just wild.”
The day Holmes was found guilty, The Associated Press said the blockbuster trial “exposed Silicon Valley’s culture of hubris and hype.” In making “The Dropout,” Meriwether sought to further puncture a facade that Holmes created through magazine photo shoots and TED Talks.
“It’s about facts, as opposed to the stories the companies tell about themselves,” she said. “It was a story everyone wanted to believe — an uplifting narrative people wanted to be true, and that’s a big part of how the fraud continued for so many years.”
“The Dropout,” with its depiction of Holmes as a steely-eyed manipulator, could also be paired with “Inventing Anna,” a recent true-crime Netflix series about the socialite and grifter known as Anna Delvey, who swindled friends and businesses out of tens of thousands of dollars.
“We live in an environment where a lot of false information is coming at us all the time,” said actor Elizabeth Marvel, who portrays Holmes’ mother, Noel. “We’re all in a daily battle to figure out what is true and what is false, so these stories speak to our moment in a very intense way.”
William H. Macy, who has a supporting role on “The Dropout” as inventor (and Holmes family friend) Richard Fuisz, sees the resonance of the series in even more stark terms.
“We can’t lose our common sense,” Macy said in an interview. “Everybody is trying to sell us stuff all the time. I don’t think that everything that is new is necessarily good.”