The showrunner behind Hulu’s new miniseries on Elizabeth Holmes is hoping you’ll see a new side to the disgraced Silicon Valley wunderkind’s story.
Liz Meriwether is the showrunner for The Dropout, which airs its final episode on Hulu on April 7. The series chronicles the meteoric rise and fall of Theranos, the blood testing startup that Holmes falsely claimed could complete an extensive range of tests with diminutive quantities of blood. Amanda Seyfried plays the Theranos CEO and Naveen Andrews plays Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, Holmes’s boyfriend who also served as both chief operating officer and president at the now-defunct company.
Meriwether’s interest in Holmes stems from a Vanity Fair article published in 2016 which focused on the crumbling empire of the Theranos CEO. Though Holmes fascinated Meriwether, she wouldn’t revisit the founder’s story until 2018, when Searchlight Pictures optioned a podcast called The Dropout.
Meriwether says that she felt like she could dig deeper into the emotion of the whole project — well beyond the world’s image of Holmes in her signature black turtleneck.
“I wanted to tell this story on a human level about the people involved because I felt like it was such a layered, complex story,” she explains, adding that Theranos’s demise affected many people on a deep level.
And in her own way, Meriwether could relate to Holmes. Beyond sharing a first name, Meriwether found herself in a position of power relatively early on when she created the hit sitcom New Girl at the age of 29.
“I could sort of try to put myself in her shoes and tell the story from her point of view,” she says. “And that, you know, became my guiding principle — just, like, trying to dig deeper into her and into the sort of emotional logic of the story.”
But by no means is Holmes an easy character to portray: Meriwether concedes that it’s difficult to write a character that’s such a mystery. Holmes did not collaborate in the making of the show.
The mystery might be part of the show’s appeal. As viewers watch the show, they’ll immediately tune into some of Holmes’s awkward characteristics and her steadfast pursuit of success — a quest she pursued at all costs, and one that ultimately bled out.
There are some important takeaways for those in the startup world who tune into the show. In an email, Paul English, the co-founder of the Stamford, Connecticut travel platform Kayak, noted the key reminder: Don’t lie. Not only is it a poor way to treat others, but there’s also reputational damage to consider if a lie is uncovered. English added that it’s OK to make mistakes and fail — but during Holmes’s trial, prosecutors pointed out that she had chosen fraud over failure.
The culmination of that fraud won’t play out in the program, however. After a roughly four-month-long trial, Holmes received a guilty verdict at the start of the year. But The Dropout does not dive deep into the trial; Meriwether says that she intentionally chose to end the series with the company’s collapse since she didn’t feel like it was her place as a storyteller to get into the trial. That’s because, in her view, the series follows the story of the company itself. It also didn’t help that she was writing the show at the same time as the trial was unwinding.
The Dropout completes a trifecta of so-called “bad founder” shows airing now. There’s WeCrashed, which aired on AppleTV in March and looks at WeWork’s rise and fall, and Super Pumped, which is about Uber. The latter premiered on Showtime and Paramount+ at the end of February. The collective releases aren’t something that Meriwether planned, though she’s noticed people are starting to ask more critical questions about what’s going on with Silicon Valley, as opposed to seeing it as a place that’s going to save us all.
“It’s part of this bigger kind of collective reckoning with some of our feelings about Silicon Valley,” Meriwether says.