Depicting the damage opioids can inflict on individuals and communities is nothing new for television. Two Showtime series come to mind: “Nurse Jackie,” which spotlighted a pill-popping medical professional, and “American Rust,” the locally shot crime drama with a story set amid western Pennsylvania’s opioid crisis.
Rarely, though, does a show attempt such a sweeping examination from multiple perspectives of how so many Americans got addicted to opioids in the first place. That thoroughness in its approach to this nationwide issue is what sets “Dopesick” – a Hulu series premiering Wednesday – apart from other entertainment-industry efforts to portray the dangers of opioid abuse.
The show, which stars Robinson, Pennsylvania, native Michael Keaton, is an eight-episode adaptation of Beth Macy’s 2018 book, “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America.” Hulu provided the Post-Gazette with seven of the eight episodes, all of which jump around in time and space to paint a comprehensive portrait of OxyContin’s origins, how it grew into a household name and why it has proven to be so difficult to regulate.
It focuses on OxyContin developers Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family, the sales representatives who helped convince local doctors that it was a safe painkiller, and the residents of a small Virginia mountain town that is slowly devastated by the drug. “Dopesick” also makes time to show how hard certain Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Administration officials worked in their efforts to manage the problem.
Keaton stars as Dr. Samuel Finnix, a trusted doctor in that tiny Virginia community. OxyContin enters his life through the pushiness of sales rep Billy Cutler (Will Poulter), who develops a complicated relationship with his job and his co-worker Amber (Phillipa Soo). The drug soon enters the lives of many in Dr. Finnix’s community, including Betsy (Kaitlyn Dever), who works in the local mines.
Most of the Sackler family is front and center as well, particularly Richard Sackler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who masterminds the spread of OxyContin in the name of profit. The law enforcement side of the equation is mostly represented by the Justice Department’s Rick Mountcastle (Peter Sarsgaard) and Randy Ramseyer (John Hoogenakker), as well as the DEA’s Bridget Meyer (Rosario Dawson).
”Dopesick” isn’t so much about explosive plot developments as it is about the small decisions that led to this highly addictive drug becoming so widely available. You’ll learn a lot about the inner machinations of family-owned pharmaceutical companies, sales-rep incentives, the Food and Drug Administration’s labeling process, and much more.
These are hour-or-so-long episodes, and some sections do seem to move at a crawl. Again though, this isn’t an action-packed show, nor should it be. Sometimes, adult dramas are just that. There are some sporadic bursts of adrenaline that cut through some of the more tedious stretches, and viewers will most likely grow more interested in the overall story as they grow attached to the characters.
Some scenes fluctuate from year to year, which can cause a little bit of confusion, even though it’s generally made clear when everything is taking place. There’s just so much going on that it’s easy to lose track of the timeline or feel like certain storylines aren’t getting their fair share of attention. Of course, one could argue that narrative chaos mirrors how those who lived through the opioid crisis must have felt.
This is a rare opportunity to see Keaton tackle a television project, and boy, does he deliver when given time to flesh out his character. Dr. Finnix is just a simple local doctor who is led to believe that OxyContin is the answer to his patients’ pain. There’s never a doubt that his intentions were pure, even if it’s easy to grow frustrated by his naivete.
Dever continues her streak of strong dramatic performances as sweet, innocent Betsy, whose entire existence comes to be defined by her addiction. Poulter displays the most positive growth of any character as he slowly grapples with the effects of the product he’s pushing, while Soo brings to life one of the most detestable characters you’ll ever see on TV who isn’t committing a violent crime.
Hoogenakker is a lot of fun as the folksy foil to Sarsgaard’s more buttoned-up investigator. Dawson is all righteous fury as she makes it a personal mission to properly regulate OxyContin, if not get it off the market entirely. Stuhlbarg might be the most mesmerizing screen presence in this show as Richard Sackler, whose body language and vocal cadence betray a man who seems to care only about his company’s bottom line.
While “Dopesick” sometimes lacks structural coherence and propulsive momentum, it generally makes up for those shortcomings with strong performances and a tangible sense of just how many corners of American life opioids touched, not to mention the lives they ruined and continue to impact. Its scope is truly impressive.