The epic tragedy about the deadly pain medicine Oxycontin, its maker and pusher Purdue Pharma, and America is far from over, but film and TV have started to comprehend the saga for wide audiences. Most recently, it was in Alex Gibney’s highly recommended HBO documentary “The Crime of the Century,” which went into immense detail about various players in big pharmaceuticals who have created an opioid epidemic, all under the initial con of helping Americans with their pain. “Dopesick,” a compelling new eight-episode Hulu series from Danny Strong (and executive produced by one of its stars, Michael Keaton), provides a Hollywood version of the story, sometimes making it as digestible and glossy as possible, but always keeping its eye on an emotional truth.
Based on the book by Beth Macy, “Dopesick” provides a full panorama of the different characters in this Bosch painting of an drug crisis, as everyone has their own part in either letting the pills take over America one user after the next, or in trying to achieve some accountability. Kaitlyn Dever plays Betsy, a Virginia mine worker who is prescribed Oxycontin by her affable town doctor Dr. Samuel Finnix (Michael Keaton), who himself has been wooed by a Purdue Pharma sales rep named Billy (Will Poulter). These separate arcs take place in the late 1990s, as Oxy is starting to take over and be normalized as a healthy opioid in which less than 1% get addicted (a massive lie, it turns out). Everyone's lives are affected each time Purdue wants to make more money and uses some type of claim—that doctors should now start patients on higher doses, or the pamphlet-ready ideas of “breakthrough pain” and “pseudo-addiction.” One of the many on-the-nose bits of dialogue in "Dopesick" has someone state, “Our community is ground zero for a growing national catastrophe.” That sense of horror slowly, effectively becomes visceral in “Dopesick" as character arcs create surprising developments related to addiction and power. Everyone's sense of self seems to be at stake, along with their health.
In a different timeline, some people are trying to fight against this epidemic in the courts, which is its own extensive process. Peter Sarsgaard and John Hoogenakker play Rick Mountcastle and Randy Ramsmeyer, respectively, two assistant lawyers under the United States Attorney, who start to investigate the company as misleading with Oxycontin, but it takes so long for them to make a case. Their passages can effectively bulk up the show’s ability for what “Law & Order” bingers call “competency porn,” of watching hard working people in offices investigate and go to court, with some little victories in between massive frustrating parts. They also take after the work of Rosario Dawson’s DEA agent Bridget Meyer, who pushes on Purdue Pharma as they try to expand and deny the addiction epidemic they have caused. She also becomes witness to how the FDA would allow, if not support opioids like Oxycontin from taking over.
Sometimes isolated from these connections is the story of the leader behind this movement of addiction, Richard Sackler. Michael Stuhlbarg plays the pharmaceutical antichrist with a certain fragility and boyishness, a guttural voice that is shared by other Sacklers in the family. It’s his type of "Foxcatcher" moment, complete with an almost cartoonish sadness, and the story's interest in following him around, of seeing the Purdue Pharma pushes come from his psychological need to prove himself to his family, doesn't create the same curiosity as other arcs. This is a show about people make complicated decisions, which continually makes them interesting and raw; Richard Sackler's main motivations are shown to be of the of-course insecurity variety. The performance seems to rely heavily on the scenery architecture, a lot of scenes have him walking around his mansions, showing his wealth by highlighting his inner smallness. The story sketches an incomplete idea of him, while arguably pursuing a lost cause in general.
The first episodes are a little tough with “Dopesick,” but not necessarily because of the somber content. Rather, the Hollywood-ized handling makes things awkwardly obvious, the way that characters have a great deal of exposition in their dialogue—it’s the kind of show in which someone investigating will repeat back an incredulous piece of information they’ve heard, and then we’re shown writing it down and then underlining it. There are also countless boardroom scenes that deliver information acutely if not robotically. But those mainstays becomes a feature of the show's rhythm, not a problem. The drama is able to flourish alongside its wealth of history and information, similar to how “The Big Short” educated viewers about the housing crisis.
It's a large credit to the show's writing, and its excellent performances, that "Dopesick" breaks away from its initial “and then this happened” type of plotting. These characters may have a part to play in the mechanics of this story, but they have more dimension than simply symbols, especially as the plotting (hour-long episodes) gives space for the story to be about everyone’s psychological pains and problems, like with Dr. Finnix’s grieving of his wife, or Betsy struggling with coming out to her parents, embracing a closeted part of herself. There’s also something to be said about how watching compelling actors like Keaton, Sarsgaard, Poulter, Dever, and Dawson sell such information-based dialogue can still be gripping all the same. To then see them clash in different scenes—like Keaton and Poulter sharing moments where both men are about to lose their integrity to the drug—is fascinating in a non-showy way. “Dopesick” uses its star power to create a charisma and ease that counters its grave subject, and it’s not hard to think its more didactic stuff wouldn’t have been as charming without this cast and their respective power.
The best thing you can say about a piece of history like "Dopesick" is that it feels to be more present tense. By using so many different storylines and nourishing their intimate importance, "Dopesick" successfully creates the idea of being immersed in the full story of this business and its brutal side effects. The show becomes highly watchable in long bursts—it has an undeniable thrum while creating its own urgency and affirming its human touch.
Five episodes screened for review. The first three episodes of "Dopesick" premiere on October 13 on Hulu.