Riveting. Provocative. Addictive. Dopesick is Hulu’s newest mini-series, documenting the Opioid crisis through captivating storylines which intersect and send the audience on a brilliant and emotional journey. Based on Beth Macy’s book of the same name, Dopesick follows the Opioid crisis from a multitude of perspectives: patients, abusers, doctors, law enforcement, prosecutors, and pharmaceutical executives. This bifurcated portrayal is executed with unmatched precision — it is as though the audience is watching a Hurricane unravel before their eyes. It is this hurricane effect, that creates such a strong emotional connection between the viewer and the characters that keeps you at the edge of your seat through each twist and turn. Given a high-caliber ensemble, performing at the best of their game, this mini-series is sure to not disappoint and truly bring the viewer into the frontline of the Opioid Crisis.
Dopesick’s mini-series is largely centered by three distinct storylines / locations, that intersect throughout the series: a rural town in the heart of Virginia’s coal-mining country, the Office of the Assistant US Attorney for Western Virginia, and Purdue Pharma. In rural Virginia, we see Dr. Sam Finnix (Michael Keaton) as one of the initial protagonists in the series. Dr. Finnix is a widowed physician, serving as the sole town doctor for this coal-mining community. As the sole physician, Dr. Finnix is a leader in the community, and shares an intimate relationship with all of the residents, playing the role as community physician, surgeon, OB/GYN, and psychiatrist. The drama then unfolds when Purdue Pharma begins aggressively marketing its new, breakthrough painkiller, OxyContin, to rural communities throughout the Appalachian Mountains, with Dr. Finnix, reluctantly prescribing this powerful narcotic. Through an elaborate chronology of chief advocate to chief victim of OxyContin, Keaton brings a powerful and resolute performance to the mini-series that lures in the audience. We see tragedy unfold, the protagonist break, and a long, painful process of recovery unwind as Keaton struggles with an addiction rocked by the cruelest irony.
Our next storyline revolves around the investigation into the deceitful marketing tactics employed by Purdue Pharma in their lobbying of OxyContin, by the Assistant US Attorneys for Western Virginia, Rick Mountcastle (Peter Sarsgaard) and Randy Ramseyer (John Hoggenakker). Working out of a strip mall in rural-Virginia Sarsgaard and Hoggenakker play hardened prosecutors, driven by a resolute moral compass to bring justice to the victims of the Opioid crisis in a classic David vs. Goliath tale. They are joined in their conquest by DEA Agent Bridget Meyer (Rosario Dawson), who brings a fierce energy and needed anger to force action in a corrupt bureaucracy. All three actors balance each other, so that we experience a perfectly blended cocktail of determination, frustration, and courage in the face of terrible despair and heartache. This fusion bodes well for the story, although the chronology of the case against Purdue Pharma, makes the trio appear awkward at times and creates unnecessary confusion in the story (more on this later).
Finally, we see the opioid crisis unfold from the boardroom and art galleries of the main protagonist, Dr. Richard Sackler (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose obsession with fame and self-worth led to the creation of this powerful pill and Sackler’s eventual placement to the head of Purdue Pharma. Stuhlbarg’s performance is uncanny in all the right ways, as we try to rationalize with the protagonist and understand Dr. Sackler’s obsession with this one drug. His character is motivated by envy, acceptance, some greed, but primarily respect. It is through Stuhlbarg’s skilled performance that we see Dr. Sackler’s desire to be adorned as one of the greatest inventors of all time. Stuhlbarg’s presence on screen commands respect and at times you question his true motivations. Despite all of the data which suggests that OxyContin is a dangerously addictive narcotic, the audience is left to question why push this drug so much? Why did Dr. Sackler become so obsessed with this one drug? Mid-way through the series, his desires come off as almost sincere and noble – he wants to cure the world of its pain. Surely, what could be a more noble desire than that? Stuhlbarg’s performance is what makes this sincerity appear authentic. Stuhlbarg makes us believe Dr. Sackler’s desires may have a small amount of truth and good, albeit for a brief moment. Ultimately, we see Sackler fall to the normal trifecta of evil in corporate America: envy, greed, and addiction, but it is the brief moment where Stuhlbarg’s character displays true moral intent, that his performance takes your breath away.
While Dopesick is a terrific series which explores a crisis deeply entrenched into American culture, the one area the show falls short is in its timing. The chronological features of this show come off awkward at best, and lazy at worst. Throughout the series we are jumping forwards and backwards in time. The series spans nearly 34 years (1985 – 2019) and jumps through this timeframe in a manner nearly as confusing as J.J. Abram’s Lost series from the early 2000’s. The show runners are clearly trying to present the story in a juxtaposed way that shows how time impacts the characters – which it clearly does. However, some of the time jumps make little sense. One moment we are with Michael Keaton in 1998, the next we are with Sarsgaard in 2005, and then we jump to Dawson in 2003. The chronology is very loosely connected and is really hard to follow. At some points, I wish I almost had a timeline graphed out to make sure I fully followed the story. This was really the main pain point which distracted from an otherwise fantastic series for me.
It is hard to think of anyone who has not been impacted, or knows someone impacted by the Opioid crisis in America. Hulu’s Dopesick captures the raw emotion, anger, and ferocity of this crisis in a way that truly stands out from many other docu-mini-series. The series transcends all socio-economic backgrounds, similar to the Opioid pandemic, with fantastic acting and an enthralling story. The series did have some minor hiccups relating to how the story is portrayed chronologically. However, given how well the story is presented on-screen, these minor hiccups fade away. If anything, the series leads one wanting to read Beth Macy’s book to dive deeper into the evolution of the crisis. Keaton’s acting may land him a nod from the Golden Globes, and the series as a whole may receive similar treatment from the Hollywood Foreign Press. Overall, this series grabs you in within the first episode and is hard to put down once you start.
My rating: 4.5 reels out of 5