Tuesday, March 22, 2022


On Hulu, I've been watching The Dropout, about the unlikely rise and predictable fall of Elizabeth Holmes and her company, Theranos.  It's a story I followed somewhat on the news as it broke, though I never listened to the podcast the series is based on or saw the Alex Gibney documentary on the same story, called The Inventor.  

The series is five of eight episodes in, so I suppose it won't be too long now before the biotech fraud perpetrated by Holmes and her partner Sonny Balwani will be exposed.  It's been an absorbing and at times darkly funny series so far, with a good cast down the line, led by Amanda Seyfried as Holmes and Naveen Andrews as Balwani.  William H. Macy, Stephen Frye, and Laurie Metcalf have parts as well, and anything any of these actors are in benefits from their presence.

It's a thing now, it seems, these series about deception and venture capital and start-ups that go from boom to bust swiftly.  Besides The Dropout, on now also are WeCrashed, with Jared Ledo and Anne Hathaway, about the WeWork fiasco, and Super Pumped, which in its first season is about Uber and the ascent and ouster of its co-founder and onetime CEO Travis Kalanick. I'm still working on just The Dropout, but as I've been watching, I've been realizing that I enjoy these shows taken from very recent news that I've read about already.  But I've only read about these stories in articles or pieces. I haven't yet felt inclined to read a book about these stories, as there has been with Super Pumped or Billion Dollar Loser, which is the WeWork tale.  I don't feel inclined to spend hours reading about these people and their worlds but will spend hours watching a dramatization about them.  And I wonder if that's because, in a series, there's the fun of spending time with these con artist assholes when they're played by actors who make the people they're playing just a touch more interesting and engaging than the real-life people are.  Of course, that's part of it.  I know something about the story going in, from news accounts I've read, watch the series, and then myself sort of fact check the series against what's known to have actually happened.  I would imagine, too, that the characters making up these accounts, themselves semi-actors on stages of their own devising, with idiosyncrasies galore, like Holmes with her deep voice and unblinking gaze, are wonderful as human subjects to portray.  It's also true that these type of stories are served well by episodic television.  In a two-hour movie, inevitably, there is much condensing and ellipses, but these shows can take their time and lay everything out about the numerous players in greater detail.

I notice that I watch these shows with a pleasurable emotional detachment.  With The Dropout, I watch it not feeling much sympathy for the people bilked by Holmes.  I do feel sympathy for the scientists and lab people, like Stephen Frye's character, who worked for Theranos.  But how much can you feel for the venture capitalists who fell for her scam and funded her?  Or for those like George Schultz who fell for her scam and served on her board?  Or for the two old guys from Walgreens who despite doubts about her invention's viability get sucked in because they fear she may partner up with their competitor, CVS?  I remember when The Wolf of Wall Street came out and there was some criticism of how little sympathy Scorsese's film shows for the people taken in by Jordan Belfort.  The film coldly appraises the men and women, some elderly, who lost money because of him. But I thought, "And so?" I felt detached from those victims also.  If you enter that game, that particular world, whether as a first-time investor or after years of experience investing, and you do so voluntarily, it seems to me that you're on thin ice crying foul later when you were the one conned.  It's not that you deserved to be taken, but what happened to you was part of the risk.  You were the one with the dreams of wealth who couldn't read the fraudster correctly.  Instead of the hoped-for rewards, you got fooled.  I always watch these stories marveling at human gullibility and how unlikely, at bottom, the events recounted in these stories are. Or perhaps I shouldn't say they're unlikely because they happen, in one form or another, over and over and over again.

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