For reasons it will take time to digest and understand, we’ve been seeing a lot of drama about scams. Inventing Anna took 10 hours and three minutes to tell the absorbing, bizarre story of Anna Delvey, a.k.a. Anna Sorokin (Julia Garner), known as “the fake heiress” who conned her way upward in New York social circles. Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber (Showtime/Crave) paints a dark picture of Silicon Valley caprice, much of it amounting to ruthless swindling.
The Dropout (streams Disney+) is the latest, a fictional treatment of the story of Elizabeth Holmes who, as a student, created a machine that could quickly do blood tests, at any time or place, from a single drop of blood. Her company, Theranos, was valued at billions of dollars, but the technology never worked, no matter how many times she claimed it did. The story is well known and Alex Gibney’s great documentary, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (streams Crave), has already chronicled the saga.
Here, in what is a very fine drama, Amanda Seyfried is superb as the baffling Elizabeth, a figure who’s smart, driven and hard-working but delusional. The supporting cast is also impressive, with some stellar performances. It sure is something to chew on, this series (eight episodes, three available now) about big ideas, big egos and one very big daydream.
We first meet Elizabeth at the height of her precrash fame. A reporter says, “You are America’s youngest self-made billionaire, that’s pretty cool.” Elizabeth smiles almost shyly. Then it’s back to the teenage Elizabeth, a gawky, geeky kid running awkwardly at school. At home, however, she’s building a persona: the capitalist tearaway, the one who says, “I don’t want to be president, I want to be a billionaire.” She’s creating her look too, the cool, big-eyed dreamer in red lipstick who would eventually make that image the face of her company.
But there are many layers to this figure and Seyfried cunningly draws them to the surface. Along with the ambition, there’s a childish naiveté to Elizabeth, something that only a few people can spot. There’s one superb scene in which Elizabeth pitches her first version of the blood-test technology to Phyllis Gardner, a professor of medicine at Stanford University (a real figure played with dynamism by Laurie Metcalf). Gardner advises her to learn more, study more, before pitching unrealistic proposals. Holmes, all pep and self-belief quotes Star Wars to explain her ambition. “Don’t ever quote Yoda to anybody here ever again,” Gardner says with withering disdain.
Yet the blocks of Elizabeth’s delusional career keep building. She can’t hold a normal conversation and practises chit-chat in front of the mirror. She becomes involved with the much older Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews), and eventually he becomes the COO of Theranos. Many people who should know better are charmed by her, swept away by her tenacity. A few, like Gardner, saw through the facade to find a child with only dreams, not true talent. That was the scam: selling juvenile aspiration as adult expertise. In January, Holmes was convicted on four counts of defrauding investors, and will be sentenced in September.
Also airing/streaming this weekend – Lucy and Desi (streams Amazon Prime Video) is Amy Poehler’s documentary about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. It is the definition of hagiography, being a loving tribute, mainly to Ball, but there is great energy in the copious amount of private footage of the couple. What emerges is that Ball worked tirelessly, fought hard to have Arnaz included in her success, and it wore them out. Arnaz’s faults are skipped over, in favour of installing him as an intuitive genius in the TV business, essentially creating sitcom templates used to this day.
Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty (Sunday, HBO/Crave, 9 p.m.) is a TV series, not a documentary. As such it takes a wildly idiosyncratic tack to the story of how the LA Lakers, led by Earvin (Magic) Johnson, became legendary champs. Based on the early episodes (there are eight), essentially it locates a sports story as a Hollywood tale, all about flash, ego and fun. Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) is the leading man, with the big smile, and a showboater. You don’t need to be a basketball aficionado, but it helps.
Finally, note that Outlander (Sunday, W channel, 9 p.m.) returns at last for Season 6. History, romance, adventure and some fighting, on probably the most popular show in the world. Also be aware that Season 1 of Sanditon (Sunday, PBS, 8 p.m.) is repeated in a marathon to lead into next week’s second season arrival.
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