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Hulu's Dopesick is a muddled telling of an urgent story

  • "It’s important enough to understand the origins and realities of America’s opioid epidemic that I’m hesitant to wholly dismiss Hulu’s occasionally informative, less frequently entertaining new limited series Dopesick," says Daniel Fienberg of the eight-episode limited series created by Danny Strong based on Beth Macy's 2018 bestselling book Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company That Addicted America. "Not everybody has the time to read books on the epidemic or watch in-depth documentaries like Alex Gibney’s The Crime of the Century or even to watch the myriad condemnations of Big Pharma on every comedy-news hybrid program now airing," he adds. "So if the presence of cinema’s best Batman in a scripted series is what it’s going to take to open some eyes to a national crisis, then so be it. Still, despite powerful performances from Michael Keaton and several of his top-tier co-stars, Dopesick is a frustrating selection of questionable narrative choices and bizarrely bad performances from typically unimpeachable actors. It’s a muddled telling of an urgent story." Fienberg adds: "It’s a tough structure to translate to the screen. In its best moments, Dopesick does a good job of following the money in a trickle-down manner, implicating sales, marketing and corporate leaders, and sometimes unscrupulous doctors, in creating a drug, fabricating the conditions and terminology for which it becomes the only cure, and then manipulating the establishment through loopholes, indirect payoffs and all manner of grift. These moments are the parts of Dopesick that feel like you’re reading a book — uncinematic but lucid — rather than watching a television show that stretches incoherently across several states and two decades."

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    • Dopesick's approach to chronicling the start of the opioid crisis becomes exhausting: "Knowing that Dopesick is based on a true story means also knowing that Richard (Sackler’s) proposal to end an 'epidemic of suffering' means starting an actual epidemic of opioid addiction, but even viewers entering Hulu’s limited series with only a tertiary knowledge of our national health emergency will recognize the telltale signs of villainy afoot," says Ben Travers. "The Sacklers are so quickly and glaringly framed as evildoers that they may as well have James Bond tied to a chair in the basement. Through this scene and its immediate successors, writer and showrunner Danny Strong, along with director Barry Levinson, aren’t setting up a nuanced tale where good intentions go awry; they’re telling a story where bad men do bad things for one simple reason — money — while everyone else pays the price. The Sacklers certainly earn their blunt characterization (not everyone has a section on their Wiki page titled “Reputation Laundering”), but Dopesick can’t build from its early efficiency. Over eight time-skipping episodes, Richard’s one-note baddie gets gobs of unnecessary screen time — you have to respect a series that refuses to indulge in humanizing a truly wretched individual, but why make him a consistent focus if you’re never going to flesh out his immorality? — and most of its main characters end up feeling just as simplistic. Conventionality leads to bloat, which dulls the clear passion driving Dopesick, and as the all-star cast struggles to make repetitious tragedies feel relevant, the series’ exhaustive approach to chronicling the start of the opioid crisis grows exhausting. Strong’s scripts bounce back and forth across decades, using an onscreen dial that spins like a horizontal slot machine until it lands on the appropriate year. Trying to keep events straight is impossible, which wouldn’t be that big of a deal if all that back-and-forth didn’t undermine much of the drama."
    • Dopesick is adept at bridging the line between the personal and the big picture: "The overarching story is remarkably simple: Purdue introduces 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," says Kelly Lawler. "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 (Rosario Dawson's DEA agent character) 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."
    • Dopesick is both understated and obvious: "Given the subject matter, there will be some frustrating if not unpredictable outcomes, some of which are supplied by history," says Robert Lloyd. "But there is a welcome lack of pounded tables, clenched jaws, throbbing temples and speechifying. It’s true that 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. But Peter Sarsgaard as career prosecutor Rick Mountcastle (real person), John Hoogenakker as Assistant U.S. Atty. Randy Ramseyer (real person) and Jake McDorman as John Brownlee, federal prosecutor for the state of Virginia (real person), are convincingly businesslike as they make their way through a thicket of executives, lawyers and doctors in pursuit of evidence to convict the Sacklers. Really, there’s something sort of low-key thrilling in the way Sarsgaard makes a phone call."
    • Dopesick grapples with dramatizing a sweeping story filled with pain and corruption and brings it home on the most human of levels, in a way that antiseptic headlines often can't: "The result is a rich mosaic of the high-stakes marketing of OxyContin, and the way Purdue leveraged its financial clout to stave off regulators and woo doctors into prescribing ever higher doses with predictably tragic results," says Brian Lowry. "It's a daunting project, seeking to focus on individual characters but also present the sweeping toll across communities, and the frustration of Justice Department and DEA employees working on parallel tracks knowing that the drug is addictive but facing one hurdle after another in pressing those cases."
    • Dopesick is the latest series to confuse viewers with shifting timelines: "Shifting timelines have been utilized in storytelling for as long as we’ve been telling stories and it can be a powerfully effective technique, but there’s a recent trend in both documentary series and limited fictional series to overdo it — and when that happens, there’s a danger of the viewer getting lost in the weeds. It’s like you’re sitting in the passenger seat of a car driven by someone who is just learning how to work a 5-speed manual transmission," says Richard Roeper. "Unfortunately, that’s the case with the Hulu limited series Dopesick, which hops between multiple timelines to tell the story of how Purdue Pharma insidiously and systematically schemed to hook America on opioids, all in the name of raking in huge profits and with little concern for the devastating impacts on health, crime, the economy and the culture. Based on Beth Macy’s powerful non-fiction book Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company That Addicted America this is a prestige project that aims for the rarefied stratosphere of feature films such as Erin Brockovich and Spotlight and Dark Waters, but despite the A-list cast and the high-level production values, the end result is curiously uninvolving, due to that start-and-stop timeline, not to mention far too many overwrought soap opera plot lines and some painfully obvious dialogue."
    • Dopesick is an ineffective prescription for telling the story of the opioid crisis: "Anyone committed to watch Dopesick should expect a tough viewing experience, since it endeavors to show us how our opioid crisis came to be," says Melanie McFarland. "But while Danny Strong's adaptation of Beth Macy's New York Times bestseller Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America provides an adequate explainer of the epidemic's nascency, its hyperactive leapfrogging between 1986 and the early-to-mid aughts is needlessly baffling. Dopesick debuts months after a U.S. bankruptcy judge approved Purdue's plan to resolve thousands of opioid lawsuits by the Sackler family contributing about $4.5 billion of their own cash, selling their pharmaceutical holdings, and forfeiting their equity in Purdue. Knowing this, this show should enrage you. But it never earns that mood spike, robbing the story of its potency and undercutting the excellent performances from a strong ensemble fronted by Michael Keaton and Rosario Dawson, Michael Stuhlbarg and Peter Sarsgaard, who co-starred in Hulu's other star-studded and very important piece, the fictionalized 9/11 drama The Looming Tower. The recent court decision conflicts with the vision of Strong and director Barry Levinson in Dopesick, in which the narrative places blame primarily on Richard Sackler (Stuhlbarg). Through the script and Stuhlbarg's portrayal of Sackler as a cold, unfeeling, small man determined to leave a giant's footprints in history, the series indicts Richard's ravenous ego and insatiable need to eclipse his uncle Arthur's legacy."
    • Dopesick deftly corrals the vast addiction epidemic through intimate, deeply engrossing stories of human devastation: Michael Keaton "is phenomenally poignant as Dr. Finnix, a genial widower and devoted doc, the kind of guy who'll stop by an elderly patient's home every night to make sure she's taken her meds," says Kristen Baldwin. "Of course, he wants the best for (Kaitlyn Dever's) Betsy — he delivered her, for Pete's sake! —  and if Purdue Pharma says Oxy will safely take away her pain, why wouldn't he prescribe it? Keaton and (Will) Poulter have a sweet and appealing chemistry, as the good doctor takes a grandfatherly liking to the politely persistent Billy. But their business relationship is built on a lie — no matter how unintentional on Billy's part — and Keaton makes us feel the agony of Dr. Sam's inevitable regret. Dever adds another remarkable performance to her growing résumé as Betsy, whose descent into desperate addiction is almost too painful to watch — for us, and for her confused and agonized parents (Ray McKinnon and Mare Winningham, both quietly heartbreaking). Like all who fall victim to OxyContin, Betsy is trapped inside a body that is no longer hers. (Michael) Stuhlbarg plays Sackler as a sort of socially awkward Bond villain, all soft-spoken menace and relentless hubris."
    • Dopesick uses its star power to create a charisma and ease that counters its grave subject: "The first episodes are a little tough with Dopesick, but not necessarily because of the somber content," says Nick Allen. "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."
    • Dopesick repeats the mistake from the book about rising crime rates: "While the story of how OxyContin was marketed and ultimately infected the disenfranchised population of Eastern Kentucky would seem to make for riveting TV, Dopesick struggles to feel like a persuasive narrative because its cop characters all feel as if they have to justify the chase," says Tirhakah Love. "It doesn’t take long for DEA agent Meyer to become activated. While looking into an overdose, she begins to reach out to local law enforcement who report that drug-related robberies, overdoses, domestic violence, murders and deaths had all been climbing since OxyContin’s release into Eastern Kentucky’s bloodstream. Those same statistics would be repeated over the course of the seven episodes we received for review—in conversations with other officials, in court, and against Purdue sales reps, as if to drive home the 1:1 relationship between OxyContin and social collapse. The show’s police compare it to the AIDS crisis, the crack epidemic, and unnecessarily allude to the overpolicing of Black and brown weed smokers just within the first two episodes. All of this exposition works to create a sense of need within the audience for the police to step in and do what they do: disrupt, arrest, and incarcerate. The only problem here is that not only are the rising crime rates mentioned in the book and the show inaccurate, but on the street-level, stopping Big Pharma came second to jailing addicts and profiting from a sensationalized crisis."
    • Dopesick is not messing around, but it often feels like watching your TV vegetables: "It can be heavy handed, but its aim is true," says Allison Keene. "Over eight episodes, seven of which were available for review, the series—based on Beth Macy’s non-fiction book Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America—chronicles the rise of America’s devastating opioid epidemic through the astronomically successful sale of OxyContin. Jumping around between 1986 and 2005, the fictionalized Dopesick follows members of the Sackler family, federal regulatory agencies, and sales reps complicit in the spread of OxyContin alongside the investigators and district attorneys who have worked to stop them. Meanwhile, patients suffer gravely throughout. Adapted by Danny Strong and directed by Barry Levinson, Dopesick is certainly not a light watch. Drenched in blues and grays and with a stoic narrative tone, the series is full of terrible, damning factoids. It’s difficult to watch, frankly, because in 2021 we know both how this all ends up and still continues on, so the tension of seeing Finnix—a good man who deeply cares about his patients—be taken in by the lies about the drug’s safety is agonizing. But while Dopesick’s message and education is vital and often compelling, it feels like it never quite hits the right pace. The limited series format, unfortunately, does little to mitigate the feeling of watching your TV vegetables. The dense story could have used a peppy Big Short-esque treatment in movie form, or with more time and with its personal narratives built out it could have been Wire-like in its investigation of the institutions that made this horror proliferate so easily—and with such terrible consequences. Instead, Dopesick often feels a little stilted, its scripts too haphazard. There is so much to uncover, so many evils to unveil and heartbreaks to chronicle, but the distance between cause and effect among the myriad stories craves focus."
    • What Dopesick does best is slowly unfold the breathtaking scope of the drug’s impact: "Dopesick is going to make you angry," says Sonia Saraiya. "Probably you were already angry about the Oxycontin grift, wherein the company Purdue Pharma—run by the extremely wealthy Sackler family—peddled the opioid as a nonaddictive painkiller when it was, in fact, highly addictive. From the late ’90s through the ’00s, Oxycontin addiction ravaged entire communities, turning them into the epicenter of an opioid crisis that is still raging today. But because the drug was so addictive—and ruthlessly marketed by Purdue—Purdue Pharma made billions off of it." Saraiya adds: "Dopesick would be better if the story did not jump around so much in time; the timeline-shifting is an increasingly popular prestige television crutch that replaces more thorough storytelling. In the show’s first few episodes, it’s especially disorienting. But as the characters reveal their struggles, Dopesick gets better and better, emphasizing how dwarfed each individual is by the massive power of Purdue. In an excellent, charismatic turn, Rosario Dawson plays Bridget Meyer, a DEA investigator who finds the tentacles of Purdue Pharma’s influence everywhere she turns. A morose Peter Saarsgard plays the similarly frustrated U.S. attorney Rick Mountcastle, whose efforts to build a case are hindered by how carefully the pharmaceutical company has covered its tracks. Other characters include Purdue Pharma sales reps Will Poulter and Phillipa Soo, miner Betsy’s parents Mare Winningham and Ray McKinnon, and the Sacklers themselves. Richard Sackler is played by a brooding, nervy Michael Stuhlbarg, who leans into his role’s villainy. Jaime Ray Newman plays his sister Kathe, who is seemingly more compassionate, but no less committed to profit. What Dopesick does best is slowly unfold the breathtaking scope of the drug’s impact—tying together the story of growing addiction and Purdue Pharma’s rapacious marketing. Once this pill enters people’s lives, it doesn’t quit—and neither does the sales team. Poulter’s character, a salesman named Billy, is assigned to Keaton’s character to make sure the family doctor keeps prescribing the drug. The pill’s dosage size keeps doubling; the excuses for how to mitigate so-called 'breakthrough pain' keep coming; and at one point, faced with rising cases of drug abuse, Purdue brings in an 'expert' who describes the phenomenon as 'pseudo-addiction.'"
    • Dopesick's presentation is triggering and heartbreaking: "Across eight episodes, there is shock after shock, about how much was known and ignored (and for how long) about OxyContin’s deleterious effects," says Kimberly Potts. "It’s a flood of information that might be a dry slog as a news presentation, but is both triggering and heartbreaking and unforgivable as it’s presented alongside examples of those who become OxyContin addicts. The scene-stealing duo of Dopesick is Keaton as Dr. Finnix and Dever as Betsy, a patient whom he brought into the world as a baby and now treats as one of the town’s only female coal miners. Betsy’s got exciting plans that will disappoint her loving but conservative parents (Ray McKinnon and Mare Winningham) — and the fact that she entrusts her secret to Samuel makes him more determined to heal the painful injury she suffered in a mine accident."
    • 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," says Joshua Axelrod. "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 naïveté. 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 (Phillipa) Soo brings to life one of the most detestable characters you’ll ever see on TV who isn’t committing a violent crime."
    • Rosario Dawson said her preparation included interviewing Danny Strong “because he interviewed everybody": "My character is a bit of an amalgamation of a couple of different characters, so it was really good going into different scenes and knowing this scene: This is exactly what happened to this woman," she says. "That really helped. It was nice to have a character that I could create a little bit.” Kaitlyn Dever, meanwhile, says that going into this series, “I didn’t know much about the opioid crisis other than the fact that it existed. I didn’t know about the injustice of it all. I didn’t know about the Purdue Pharma and Sackler family side of it. All of that was super eye-opening to me, and it immediately became something that I just needed to be a part of. I wanted so badly to be a part of telling that story and to hopefully open eyes and spread the word, and allow people to have a little more empathy towards addiction.”
    • Michael Keaton didn't realize the scope of Dopesick until he stepped on set: “I wasn’t really ready for the journey when I signed on,” says Keaton, who was familiar with the tragic outcomes of the opioid crisis and thought it was an interesting subject to tackle onscreen. “It was compelling.” But even though he read a few scripts, it wasn’t until he was on set that he realized that “it’s going to be a lot more work than I bargained for.” The challenge, Keaton explains, was delivering a grounded performance as Dr. Finnix goes from being the source of care and comfort to the likes of local miner and closeted lesbian Betsy Mallum (Kaitlyn Dever), to falling prey to the same drug he was convinced by Purdue sales rep Billy (Will Poulter) was safe to prescribe to patients. “Without giving anything away, you see this guy’s journey and it’s a big one. In the way he looks, in the way he acts. There’s no special effects or anything, here it’s all nuanced,” says Keaton.
    • Keaton says Dopesick's writing drew him back to TV: "This was really about something," he says. "And any time you get the opportunity to bring awareness to something that really matters, that's a good thing." But the important subject matter wasn't the only reason Keaton returned to TV. "The writing was really, really good," he says. "And I had read a lot of things. There's so much good stuff on television it's kind of ridiculous. It's not like people haven't offered me things before. There was just nothing I really wanted to do or I was too busy. This one was just better than most."
    • Keaton says he doesn’t necessarily need to like the characters he plays but instead looks for a quality in them that he hasn’t explored before: “Who wouldn’t want that challenge?” he says. “If I’m a little frightened, that’s usually a good thing.”
    • Creator Danny Strong says it was hard pitching Dopesick around Hollywood: “I was going around to these pitches like, ‘I’m coming back to my nonfiction roots! Like Recount and Game Change! And I’ve got a bestselling book!’” says Strong. But the reaction? “No one cares. ‘Oh, Recount? Cute. That was 14 years ago, you know?’” Strong adds: “When you start reading about Purdue’s crimes and the extent of their lies and  how they misbranded and manipulated, peddled influence, you just can’t believe it. You just can’t believe what they did. The whole story is so shocking, I just had to figure out how to get this told in a mainstream way."
    • After FX passed after buying Dopesick, Strong says he was grateful to land Michael Keaton: "You know, they send you lists of people (to consider)," says Strong. "I saw Michael Keaton’s name and he’s a childhood hero of mine. It was a pie-in-the-sky thing, especially because it’s an ensemble. It just didn’t seem realistic, but it was our first offer, so why not try? I didn’t know anything about his nephew who passed away from an overdose. Then I get the call, 'He wants to meet with me.' We had this great call, and then he wanted to see what the arc was for the season because he hadn’t done TV. So, I wrote out this document for him that outlined what happens the entire season. Then I got another call saying he wants to do it. From that moment on, it felt like we were the cool kids. Suddenly everyone wanted to be a part of the project." Dopesick marks the first solo TV project for Strong, who co-created Empire. How did it feel? "I’m not going to lie to you, I f*cking loved it," he says.

    TOPICS: Dopesick, Hulu, Danny Strong, Kaitlyn Dever, Michael Keaton, Rosario Dawson




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