From New Girl to golden girl turned fallen girl--that’s the wide-ranging, protagonist-driven ride navigated by Elizabeth Meriwether who prior to this current awards season was perhaps best known for her lengthy tenure as a writer and executive producer on New Girl, a smart, lauded comedy series.
Now, though, Meriwether has gained major recognition for a limited series that’s quite a departure from New Girl--namely The Dropout (Hulu) for which she served as creator, showrunner, writer and executive producer. Based on a true story, The Dropout stars Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes whose high-tech blood testing company Theranos claimed a medical diagnostic breakthrough, making her a Silicon Valley wunderkind. However, her meteoric rise turned to an epic collapse as she was convicted on four counts of fraud tied to nearly $1 billion invested in Theranos.
The series title is a reference to Holmes, a Stanford University dropout. Seyfried gives a tour de force performance, as underscored by her Emmy nomination in the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie category. It’s one of six Emmy nods garnered by The Dropout, the others being for Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series and writing for Meriwether, casting, and two for directing--bestowed upon Michael Showalter for the “Green Juice” episode and Francesca Gregorini for “Iron Sisters.”
The very first episode--aptly titled “I’m in a Hurry” for which Meriwether earned the Emmy writing nomination--in a way sets the tone for the series as its director, Showalter, explained to SHOOT in an earlier installment of this Road To Emmy Series. Showalter said that he “used the camera to give the audience the feeling of constant motion. The main character [Holmes] is someone who is sort of in constant motion.”
Showalter continued, “You kind of can’t stay in one place for too long. The camera moves in a way that is sort of like what Holmes' mind is like--going places and she’s not willing to wait.”
That mindset in a way reflects the best and worst of Silicon Valley--a relentless pursuit of a goal, propelled at times by claims, not yet proven, designed to raise much needed capital. But there can be a thin line between reaching for the stars, trying to attain what doesn’t seem possible, and trumpeting unsubstantiated claims to trigger mega-investments.
Meriwether saw both the drama and strangely comic nature of the story and that led her to Showalter, of whom she’s been a long-time fan, dating back to the TV series The State which he created and wrote. Meriwether had wanted to work with Showalter for some time and that finally came to fruition on The Dropout.
“He comes from this rich comedy background and has transitioned into making more drama and dramedy with The Big Sick and The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” said Meriwether of Showalter. “He’s doing interesting character studies that feel really human and grounded. It felt like he just understood the tone [of The Dropout]. And it’s a very tricky tone. My biggest concern going into production was that this was a very serious story but had a lot of absurdity to it. I had to make sure everyone who worked on it understood this. He had this incredible grasp of that. He wasn’t afraid of the comedy. Sometimes directors who’ve done drama won’t confront it with comedy or a little bit of silliness. He embraced all of it.”
The Dropout also marked the first time Meriwether collaborated with director Gregorini. “She was a new discovery for me,” recalled Meriwether, noting that she felt a creative rapport with her at their first meeting. “She is such a soulful director and really connected with the character [Holmes]. The two episodes she directed were tricky, particularly the fifth episode [“Flower of Life”] where the tone of the show got darker.”
And episode 6, “Iron Sisters,” for which Gregorini scored the Emmy nomination, was one of Meriwether’s favorites. “It really explores the aspects of feminism in the story,” said Meriwether, citing such characters as Holmes and a women scientist, Dr. Phyllis Gardner (portrayed by Laurie Metcalf). “Francesca handled it beautifully with a heartfelt touch.”
But the most pivotal deft touch belonged to Seyfried. Originally Kate McKinnon was attached to the project but then with COVID and her Saturday Night Live commitment, the schedules got complicated. Suddenly The Dropout needed a lead actress, said Meriwether--with shooting supposed to get underway relatively soon. That was quite daunting in that the portrayal of Holmes was so important for the series. Seyfried, though--whom Meriwether admired going back to Mean Girls--was up to the challenge. In the first rehearsal, Meriwether recalled that Seyfried “blew me away,” including the work she had done on Holmes’ voice in conveying varied emotions. Early on, Meriwether knew that Seyfried’s performance would be “incredible.” Meriwether noted that it felt like Seyfried was “a creator of the show as I was writing it”; the actor's work on the role was that defining.
Meriwether was in fact writing the series as real-life developments emerged. “When we were two-thirds of the way done, the trial [of Holmes] started." As more information came to light, Meriwether found herself sifting through evidence overnight to see if it affected what they were shooting the next day. Meriwether found the challenge to be exciting--and quite an education as The Dropout was the first true story she had worked on in television.
She added, “This opened up a whole new kind of writing. I had been writing a network sitcom [New Girl] for years and years and years. To be able to sort of tell a different kind of story [in The Dropout] was a huge thing for me--to have it be funny at times but not have it be a comedy. My biggest takeaway is that I want to keep telling different kinds of stories.”
In that vein, she is next co-showrunning a limited series for FX, Dying For Sex, based on the podcast of the same title, centered on a woman who leaves her unhappy marriage and explores her sexuality while dealing with stage 4 breast cancer.
This is the 12th installment of a 16-part weekly The Road To Emmy Series of feature stories which will explore the field of Emmy contenders and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, writing, producing, showrunning, cinematography, editing, production design, costume design, music, sound and visual effects. The Road To Emmy Series will then be followed by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners on September 3 (Saturday) and 4 (Sunday), and then the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on Monday, September 12.