Elizabeth Holmes saga goes from trial to TV series

An 8-episode series on the controversial Silicon Valley figure has begun airing on the Hulu streaming service

This image released by Hulu shows Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes in the Hulu series 'The Dropout', premiering March 3. Hulu via AP

Now that she is facing a likely prison sentence, Elizabeth Holmes’s fast rise and mortifying collapse has been turned into The Dropout a highly entertaining Hulu TV series based on the podcast and other sources that delved into a drama that shined a bright light on Silicon Valley’s dark side.

Holmes, who faces 20 years in prison when she’s sentenced in September, turned 38 last month while out on bail while living on a luxurious Silicon Valley estate. She was convicted in early January on four counts of fraud tied to the nearly $1 billion invested in Theranos, a blood-testing company that she founded at age 19 after dropping out of Stanford.

The eight-episode series, which begins streaming on Thursday, draws upon some of the evidence that came out during that trial, particularly texts between Holmes and her former boyfriend and business partner, Sunny Balwani.

Other material had been previously laid out in the book Bad Blood by former Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou, whose 2015 stories exposed the flaws in Theranos’s technology and the 2019 HBO documentary The Inventor.

But the Hulu series breathes life into Holmes’s saga like no other while also telling the stories of a cast of characters who were charmed, reviled and otherwise affected by her quest to become a billionaire and perhaps change the world along the way, much like her idol, the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

Showrunner Elizabeth Merriwether told The Associated Press she took “some poetic license, but in a thoughtful way” as she infused the saga with even more drama.

The series uses the real names of everyone involved with one notable exception: Theranos’s former lab director, Adam Rosendorff, who spent five days on the witness box during the trial, much of the time sparring with one of Holmes's lawyers.

Other people featured in The Dropout who factored into the trial include former Theranos employee and key whistleblower Erika Cheung and former Walgreens chief executive Wade Miquelon, who both were called to the stand by federal prosecutors.

Also featured are Mr Carreyrou, who came to court six of the seven days Holmes gave evidence, ensuring he had a seat in her direct line of vision, as well as Holmes’s mother, Noel, who came to court every day holding her daughter’s hand on the way in and out, and her father, Chris, who only came for closing arguments and the jury deliberations that led to the verdict.

The series also illuminates the roles of people heard about during the trial but who didn’t go to the witness box, who include another whistleblower, Tyler Shultz, and his grandfather, Theranos board member and former US secretary state George Shultz, who died last year before the trial began.

In this series, the younger Mr Shultz is depicted as a courageous hero while his grandfather comes across as an ageing statesman better suited for negotiating with world leaders than for seeing through Holmes’s charms.

The series cast Oracle founder and Silicon Valley icon Larry Ellison as playing a pivotal part in Holmes’s saga that went beyond his role as an early Theranos investor.

The Dropout depicts Mr Ellison delivering a sermon that transforms Holmes from a giddy young girl prone to dancing to pop music and blurting out “Awesome!” into a ruthless entrepreneur determined to do whatever it takes to “get the [expletive] money!”

Ms Merriwether acknowledged she doesn’t know if anything like that scene actually happened, but defended it as a fair portrayal of Mr Ellison as Holmes’s mentor.

This image released by Hulu shows Naveen Andrews as Sunny Balwani, left, and Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes in the Hulu series 'The Dropout', premiering March 3. Hulu via AP

And then there is Mr Balwani, who was banned from attending her trial after she alleged his sexual and emotional abuse of her may have contributed to whatever misconduct occurred at the company.

Mr Balwani’s spectre loomed large throughout the trial, including the afternoon when Holmes spelt out her abuse allegations during two hours of occasionally tearful evidence.

Naveen Andrews depicts Mr Balwani so well in The Dropout that it is likely to intensify interest in his criminal trial, which is scheduled to begin with jury selection on March 9.

But the series ultimately belongs to Amanda Seyfried, who manages to capture both Holmes’s magnetism and creepiness. In an interview, Seyfried traced her performance to the kinship she felt as she studied Holmes and realised they shared common interests growing up, including a love of dance.

“I never expected to feel such a camaraderie right from the jump,” she said.

At times, Seyfried makes Holmes seem like an almost sympathetic figure who may have been warped by her family and Mr Balwani. But at other times Seyfried is chilling as she practices deepening her once-girlish voice in front of a mirror or perfects the unblinking stare Holmes routinely beamed at people throughout the trial.

It’s a tale that hopefully will help discourage sequels by other blindly ambitious entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley’s cauldron of creativity and charlatans.

Updated: March 04, 2022, 6:06 PM
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