Everyone knows the tale of the opioid epidemic. Maybe we think so.
Much attention has been devoted to the epidemic of opioid addiction and overdose in the U.S. – nearly 72,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2019 – although the focus on where we are now in the battle against the epidemic can obscure how, exactly, we got here.
Hulu’s “Dopesick” (first three episodes premiering Wednesday, then streaming weekly, ★★★ out of four) aims to fill in the gaps by tracing the rise of one opioid drug: Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin. Inspired by the nonfiction book “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America” by journalist Beth Macy, the miniseries is a fictionalized account of the epidemic, mixing real-life figures with composite characters whose lives were affected, and sometimes destroyed, by opioids.
Danny Strong (Empire, Game Change) and Michael Keaton star in “Dopesick”, a harsh critique of Big Pharma and America’s long-standing inaction regarding opioids. Unrelenting in its tragedy, irony and criticism, the series spans the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s as the crisis intensifies across the nation. The devastating and sometimes slow-paced series “Dopesick”, while not always uplifting, is a powerful, moving portrait of America’s tragedy.
The primary subjects in “Dopesick” are the billionaire Sacklers who own Purdue; DEA agent Bridget Meyer (Rosario Dawson), who’s obsessed with getting Oxy under control; two U.S. attorneys (Peter Sarsgaard and John Hoogenakker) trying to build a case against Purdue; Appalachian family doctor Samuel Finnix (Keaton) and the Purdue sales rep (Will Poulter) who’s hounding him to prescribe Oxy; and one of his young patients, Betsy Mallum (Kaitlyn Dever), a Virginia coal miner who becomes addicted after taking the drug to help with a back injury.
Surprisingly, the story behind this is very simple. Purdue introduced OxyContin falsely. claiming that – unlike previous opioids – it isn’t very addictive; egged on by aggressive reps, doctors start prescribing it; crime and deaths follow; and law enforcement officers try (but often fail) to do something about it.
“Dopesick” is adept at bridging the line between the personal and the big picture, weaving its intimate stories among colder, broader scenes in corporate offices and on Capitol Hill. When Bridget appeals to unfeeling Purdue reps or defensive FDA employees to help her save addicts and families in danger, the audience knows how great the need is, having already seen Betsy’s life devolve into chaos.
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This series is unfortunately a continuation of a TV trend, which jumps between the 1990s and the early 2000s to mid-2000s multiple times during every episode. Sometimes it is necessary to reinforce the point the writers want to make regarding the devastating effects of OxyContin or opioids. In others it confuses and makes the story more complicated than necessary. “Dopesick” is far from the only offender (and far from the worst), but more linear storytelling might have worked better here.
This cast has a great and sympathetic performance, which helps to ground the series. Keaton does a great job of mastering the character, which is a mix of contradictions as well as transformation. Dever prevents her character, an openly gay lesbian living in small-town America, becoming stereotypical. The true star of the series, however, is Dawson, whose DEA agent is passionate and angry on behalf of the suffering she sees in the world but stymied at nearly every turn in her quest for justice, especially as a woman of color in law enforcement who’s Often dismissed by superiors.
The lens of “Dopesick,” one might imagine, is onthe most tragic moments, and the grimmest settings, caused by addiction. But even when it isn’t showing the death, illness and strife caused by opioids, it is brutal to watch. Scenes set in the sunlight are full of moments when I wanted to scream “don’t take that pill!” As if the television were a horror film.
But it isn’t a horror film with CGI monsters; it’s based on a true story where the monsters were hidden behind lawyers, inside innocuous-looking pill bottles and in a disease we didn’t understand. There are times when “Dopesick” moralizes its way into after-school special territory, but that can be overlooked for how effective it is at bringing the opioid epidemic – often relayed to the public as a series of statistics – to harrowing life.
Dopesick is art that reflects the life of the artist. It’s the type that forces us to look into the mirror and seek out better things for the future.