Hulu’s limited series Dopesick begins with two chilling scenes. The first is Richard Sackler (Michael Stuhlbarg), the former President of Purdue Pharma (which created, sold, and lied about the drug OxyContin) saying in 1986 that “the time has come to redefine the nature of pain.” The next, in 2005, is at a grand jury hearing where a rural doctor, Samuel Finnix (Michael Keaton), is asked “did more than 1% of your patients become addicted to OxyContin?” He hesitates, looking up at the ceiling, unsure where to even begin. We’ve just learned, in these opening minutes, that one of the primary ways Purdue was able to convince doctors that OxyContin was safe was because it was allegedly nonaddictive. Finnix is prompted again, and he speaks: “I can’t believe how many of them are dead now.”
Dopesick is not messing around. It can be heavy handed, but its aim is true. 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.
Still, there are notable standouts from each wing of the show’s sprawling narrative. Keaton is incredible as Finnix, a man haunted by the drugs he dispensed that destroyed a community. An increasingly beleaguered Kaitlyn Dever shines as Betsy Mallum, a young miner battling addiction and a lack of acceptance by her family. Peter Sarsgaard and John Hoogenakker play an immensely likable pair of Virginia District Attorneys with sparkling wit, although they don’t get enough screen time; their toiling to catch Purdue and members of the Sackler family out are some of the show’s most satisfying scenes. (They also may be the only characters on TV with a twang that strong who are also portrayed as incredibly intelligent, and that’s appreciated.)
Others are left cold by the scripting. Will Poulter’s pharma sales rep waffles for too long without taking a stand, and is in a draining and completely uninteresting romantic entanglement with a greedy coworker. On the flip side, Rosario Dawson as a DEA agent on the rise gets stuck with a lot of grandstanding and tropey moments for her crusading heroine (of the “my work is my life” variety). Stuhlbarg is also one-note as Richard Sackler, though it’s hardly his fault; all of the family members, along with their Purdue cronies, would be constantly twirling their mustaches if they had them—even the board rooms are accented with dark red leather and carpets, suggesting a vampiric cabal. And yet, somehow, it’s not overwrought. Evil is in full-tilt. As cartoonish as some of the portrayals are (alongside some very bad wigs), I didn’t mind the very obvious delineation between the white hats and black hats, because what Dopesick is telling us is enraging.
Dopesick is heavy, but that doesn’t necessarily scare off a viewers on its own; Chernobyl, after all, became a surprise hit in that regard. But Chernobyl was also shorter and more focused. There’s a scene about midway through Dopesick where the DAs wait for a van of court-ordered copies of paperwork from Purdue to be delivered. “That’s a big truck for just a few boxes,” one quips. The door opens to reveal that not only is it full, but the driver then points to four more trucks following it. “They’re burying us in paperwork,” Sarsgaard’s character says with a tired smile. Dopesick can feel the same way.
And then, just as quickly, you get a full emotional gut punch. Behind all of this paperwork and boardroom scheming and wooing of agencies, we also see the booming pill mill industry, the way OxyContin is discovered to actually alter one’s brain chemistry, how something regular people were told was safe has completely wrecked their lives. The industry of pain, one that is still thriving in this country, is the simmering constant throughout Dopesick, and it’s not one that has an end—except for those who have been demolished by it. After an overdose, a devastated parent tells a doctor that now “our girl is finally out of her pain.”
It’s why, for all its faults and lulls, I wanted to keep watching. Every reveal is damning and essential. I wanted to quote all of it: the lies, the greed, the manipulations, the horror. No one who supported the Purdue side comes out looking good—particularly the FDA. Even those with good intentions were bamboozled, but there is no room for absolution here. When it comes to OxyContin, Dopesickis clear: there is only pain and reckoning.
The first three episodes of Dopesick premiere Wednesday, October 13th on Hulu, with new episodes streaming weekly.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.