Guest Column: Rebecca Jarvis on Why ‘The Dropout’ Is “Not Just a Story About a Fascinating Person”

It all started with a pitch I received about Theranos in late 2013. As a correspondent at ABC News, I was working on a series with Diane Sawyer about exploding medical costs, and we were looking for solutions for our viewers. Theranos was pitched to me as a company that was creating something that could save our viewers money on blood testing: a full range of tests completed from a single drop of blood. When I started looking into it, there was no one independent who could really corroborate for me what I was being told. It didn’t seem like a gigantic red flag at this point, but it was in the back of my mind.

Suddenly, I started to see Elizabeth Holmes blowing up on the cover of magazines, and that really piqued my interest. I pitched the story internally at ABC News, thinking a narrative podcast would be a great launch point for this story. At that point, there were no charges from the SEC, there were no charges from the DOJ. We didn’t know where the story was going. But it felt like there were a lot of disconnects between what Holmes was saying and selling, and what the scientific community could independently validate. No one outside Theranos had even seen the technology.

It wasn’t until I met Theranos whistleblower Erika Cheung, who gave her first interview after filing her claims with regulators, that I heard about what was happening inside Theranos. It was a fascinating conversation. I was pregnant for much of the production process, and my doctor allowed me to travel one time to the West Coast during that pregnancy. It became this very monumental moment in my life — my producers, Taylor Dunn and Victoria Thompson, and I knew that there were these deposition tapes that had been recorded, which no one had heard or seen. We were able to collect these tapes, but we had to do it in person because there were so many redacted pieces. This moment was incredible, as we were the very first people to share those with the public.

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The podcast came out in January of 2019 — I remember this because I gave birth to my first child in February. Just as I was finishing the final episode of the podcast, I was delivering my daughter.

I had no expectations of how people would respond to the podcast once it was out — I just felt that the story of Theranos and Holmes’ purported deceptions needed to be told. After the first few episodes were released, TV producers started cold-emailing me and asking, “What are you doing with the IP?” And it turned out there was interest inside Disney — Searchlight and Hulu wanted to tell the story as a limited series. Being nine months pregnant, racing to put the final touches on the final episodes — just thinking back on that period in my life, it was a complete whirlwind. Now that it’s become a limited series, I’ve reveled in how the leadership inside Disney, Hulu, Searchlight, creator and showrunner Liz Meriwether, star Amanda Seyfried, the entire cast and crew, all the people inside ABC News who were committed to this — everyone had to be on board. There were so many times that it could have fallen apart.

It started with Liz coming with a bunch of questions. That’s something I’ve respected about her from the very beginning: She didn’t walk into this project assuming she knew all the answers; she really did approach it in many ways like a journalist, asking more questions, looking at various scenes and vignettes from the podcast and asking, “What else? Is there more on this?” I have always really respected that quality. In the beginning, there were a lot of questions, and we sat down in person pre-COVID.

But because of COVID, things got pretty wild. Holmes’ court date was pushed back multiple times, and then her pregnancy pushed it again — her trial took place in August 2021. The Hulu series was postponed a handful of times as well, and Amanda, Liz and the production team were in the process of shooting at the same time that this court case was going on. We came into a lot of new information during that time, such as text messages between Holmes and her romantic and business partner, Sunny Balwani, the former president and COO of Theranos. The Hulu series had been written at that point, but there was still production underway. Liz and I were going back and forth throughout the trial, sharing new information with each other.

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Most of what was written was based on the reporting that we had at that point, and it didn’t have to be rewritten. But there were these new layers. Like, we never would have known that Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani very privately called each other “Tiger” and “Tigress,” which was revealed in their text messages. I think after you work on a project like this, you think about your own text messages, and what they would tell people about your relationships and who you are, because you just get a deeper dive from looking at that kind of material.

The casting was absolutely impeccable, and I had zero to do with it. But I would not change it — it’s a dream come true, the entire thing. I have been in regular contact with Stanford professor Phyllis Gardner, who was played in the series by Laurie Metcalf; she has said to me, “My mannerisms, even some of my facial expressions — she got it.” The pursuit of truth is the No. 1 driver of my work, is why I do what I do. And to turn that material over to be adapted into another medium — you want to make sure whatever the new product is, it does justice to the underlying reality. I think Liz took that as seriously as I took it. She’s very detail-oriented.

A lot of people have said, “It’s one thing to hear this story, but to see it is another thing.” That’s a layer that the Hulu series added — people were yearning to see more. I remember my first time walking onto set. I was approaching Amanda from behind, and yet the essence of Elizabeth Holmes was right there. People talk about the voice, but it’s also the mannerisms. It’s how she walks. It’s how she conducts herself. It’s the power she holds when she’s standing in front of a group of people and how that group of people reacts. All those things are what I saw along the way with my reporting. When I walked into this room on set, I was blown away to see all of that in front of me in Amanda’s performance.

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This is not just a story about a fascinating person. This is a story about a technology that could have impacted all people. Elizabeth Holmes was on stages talking about the fact that she could bring Theranos inside all Walgreens stores. So many Americans live within driving distance of a Walgreens, so you could imagine a world where everyone would come in contact with that technology. And so many very smart people got it very wrong — maybe they didn’t get it wrong, but they were duped, based on the outcome of her trial. I was always fascinated by that aspect of it. How could this happen? Why did this happen? This is about a person, but it’s also about an ecosystem that allowed this deception to take place.

I’m just incredibly proud of what everyone’s put into this. I’m so excited that it’s getting this kind of recognition, and I feel so grateful to the audiences of people who listened to the podcast and sent us their notes of appreciation. This can be a lonely process when you’re in the work of reporting and putting it all together. I’m very excited for the team, and I’m so happy for everyone who’s been nominated. This, for me, is frankly icing on the cake.

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

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