The low-key exciting ‘Dopesick’ on Hulu adds to Sackler’s Wall of Shame
“Dopesick,” a new Hulu drama, is about the OxyContin pandemic, which has been going on for a couple of decades and change. It joins Alex Gibney’s recent documentary “The Crime of the Century,” Patrick Radden Keefe’s book “Empire of Pain,” and the latest of three episodes of John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” in shining a harsh spotlight on the drug’s manufacturer, Purdue Pharma; the Sackler family, who owns it; and the Food and Drug Administration, which, by omission and commission, essentially colluded in allowing a dangerous, addictive narc
It’s both subtle and apparent, adapted from Beth Macy’s book “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America” by Danny Strong (“Recount,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”) and filmed in part by Barry Levinson. Given the topic, there will be some disappointing, if not surprising, results, some of which will be provided by history. There aren’t any hammered tables, clinched jaws, aching temples, or speechifying, which is a nice change. Bridget Meyer, a high-ranking Drug Enforcement Administration officer dedicated to getting OxyContin off the streets, has been fashioned with a short fuse and a disregard for niceties, and Rosario Dawson’s composite character — Bridget Meyer, a high-ranking Drug Enforcement Administration officer committed to getting OxyContin off the street — has been fashioned with a short fuse and a disregard for niceties. However, Peter Sarsgaard as career prosecutor Rick Mountcastle (real person), John Hoogenakker as Assistant United States Attorney Randy Ramseyer (real person), and Jake McDorman as John Brownlee, federal prosecutor for the state of Virginia (real person) are convincingly businesslike as they navigate a thicket of executives, lawyers, and doctors in search of evidence to convict the Sacklers. The way Sarsgaard makes a phone call is actually very exciting.
The show alternates between three distinct environments: Michael Keaton’s Appalachian mining village, the luxurious, emotionally sterile world of the Sacklers, and efficient government offices and courtrooms, with side visits to cafes, upscale restaurants, fishing sites, and an Arizona resort.
Keaton is the epitome of a nice rural doctor in his role as Finnix. During an examination, he recounts fish stories, checks in every night to make sure an elderly patient has taken her medicines, and sympathizes with teenage patient Betsy Mallum (Kaitlyn Dever, who was so memorable in “Unbelievable”), who works in the mines and is homosexual and frightened to come out. (Mare Winningham and Ray McKinnon are sensitively cast as her uncaring parents.) Finnix is almost always a widower, and the fact that his wife died of ovarian cancer in agony is a character-defining element.
Billy Cutler, played by Will Poulter, is the story’s moral wild card, a Purdue salesperson assigned to Finnix who overcomes the doctor’s reservations about Oxy and opioids, and whose blossoming connection appears to contain the roots of a surrogate father and son bond. Unfortunately, monetary benefits — he’ll use the word “addicted” — and Billy’s somewhat uncontrollable crush on a truly awful, money-obsessed, and morally bankrupt — if, sure, good-looking — coworker (Phillipa Soo) pull him to the dark side of the sales force.
It’s always obvious who’s good and who’s terrible, as well as who’s good but unfortunate or foolish. To the extent that we see them, the Sacklers are empty sacks, as humanly useless as they are self-approving, and Michael Stuhlbarg, as the ambitious Richard Sackler, who is primarily responsible for OxyContin being misrepresented and oversold, muscles out any hint of likability; he is a sad demonic mediocrity. It makes some sense: his desire for power is fueled by the fact that no one loves him – not his relatives, nor his workers, even his dog appears to be neutral on the topic. However, it appears out of place in comparison to the series’ other prominent performances, especially when compared to Keaton, Dever, and Sarsgaard’s mild realism.
Strong covers the major points of fact as well as a slew of minor ones: Purdue’s hard-sell-disguised-as-soft-sell sales techniques; invented medical conditions requiring larger and larger doses; junkets designed to persuade doctors to prescribe OxyContin for moderate rather than severe pain; a guide to extracting the opioids from Oxy for a heroin-like high; crime rates rising and lives falling; different types of rehab; pharma-promoted “pain societies”; branded OxyContin fishing hats,
Given that the investigators are temperamental outsiders within the context of their various agencies, the procedural element has the flavor of a newspaper story, similar to “Spotlight” (another Keaton performance) or “All the President’s Men,” and unloads a lot of exposition without seeming too obvious about it. Certain topics are addressed many times to avoid getting confused in the frequently muddled non-chronological history and various interconnecting storylines, each of which might fill an eight-hour miniseries. A small amount of personal information is woven into the lives of the investigators, just enough to show that the feds are humans, too. (Dawson’s composite character has a more complex personal life, but it doesn’t add anything to the plot.)
Seven of the eight episodes have been released, and I’m not sure how closely the series follows history. However, you may be aware that the Sacklers were recently exempted from personal culpability in the several cases filed against them, a contentious decision that is currently being appealed. Given this, it’s at least pleasant to see their names, as well as the names of their associates, etched a bit further into the Wall of Shame.