An extraordinary true-crime drama on Disney+ in the UK.
Well, this one snuck up on us.
Residing on Disney+ and released with next to little or no fanfare, Dopesick has gained an incredible word-of-mouth following, impressed by the superb ensemble cast and the shocking and emotive storyline.
An eight-part series, Dopesick takes a holistic, 360º look at the opioid crisis in the US during the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, which – terrifyingly – devasted whole communities and, even more terrifyingly, was orchestrated and exploited for all its worth by one company – Purdue Pharma.
It’s worth noting that Purdue Pharma is a real company and the Sackler family who own it are real people. I’m reviewing this, of course, as a drama – where some elements (characters in this case) are based on facts and some are fictional.
While Dopesick is an eviscerating commentary on US society, Big Pharma and the ultra-capitalist parameters the health industry works within over there, it’s also an extremely compelling human drama and, importantly for a crime drama website such as this, a thrilling procedural ride.
In order chart Purdue Pharma – and the Sackler family’s – heinous manipulation and exploitation of rules, regulations and, ultimately, human lives, is a little, well, tricksy.
Subsquently, Dopesick is an often dizzying multi-stranded story.
Based on the non-fiction novel Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America by Beth Macy, we go inside the decision-making of Purdue Phrama and the Sackler family, as well as focus in on the lives of the DEA investigators who tear their hair out investigating and trying to pin something on the financially and politically superior Sackler family, and the people in communities across the US – especially in this case West Virginia mining community – whose lives are destroyed by the so-called wonder drug, OxyContin.
On opioid, OxyContin – as we see – has been aggressively marketed as the non-addictive pain killer to end all pain killers. We get a look inside the dynamics of the Sackler family – especially driving force Richard (Michael Stuhlbarg) – as he obsessively tries to make OxyContin a world-conquering drug. To do this, he sets up a network of hyper-aggressive salespeople, who are fed misinformation and massaged statistics. In turn, they go out to local GPs and medical professionals and ply them with gifts (trips to conventions, tickets to football games, attention of attractive women etc) to make sure they start administering OxyContin to their patients. And, in mining communities, pain is a by-product of their jobs.
Anything to take the pain away, and it’s a good thing. No. A great thing.
One of these doctors is Sam Finnix (Michael Keaton), who, after building a relationship with Purdue salesperson Billy Cutler (Will Poulter), decides to start giving his patients the drug. Finnix is a flinty, earthy and homely man who has dedicated his lives to his patients after the death of his wife. He has the kind of old-fashioned relationship with his patients that means he’s more than just a doctor – he’s a friend, a therapist, and someone to go fishing with all in one. He’s a trusted pillar of the community.
But Billy does such a job on Finnix, that soon he’s giving all his patients OxyContin. It works and the stats and marketing material Cutler are giving him is highly believable and back everything up.
But as we soon see, Purdue is heinously disingenuous. When they sell a lot of this drug, they want to sell more. So Purdue makes things up and more or less employ doctors and politicians who once were against them. “Breakthrough pain” is a new medical condition they more or less invent. The whole concept of addiction is turned on its head and given new spins by Purdue, alleges this series. As people begin to get addicted, it argues that it’s not the drug’s fault – it’s the addict’s fault.
We see Betsy Mallum (the always excellent Kaitlyn Dever), a young gay woman who lives with her hyper-religious family and grapples with her sexuality. If that’s not enough for any young woman to come to terms with, she’s badly injured in an accident in the mine she works at. Finnix prescribes her OxyContin, and all her troubles go away.
Until she becomes addicted. A full, arm-scratching, lip-chewing, feverish addiction.
There’s an incredible twist later on when salt-of-the-earth Finnix – who is dedicated to his job and his community – is injured in a car accident. He himself is prescribed OxyContin by his doctor, and he becomes addicted. The series (or at least Finnix’s narrative strand) then concentrates his frankly inspirational road to recovery and redemption of sorts.
While these extraordinarily moving human stories of small-town Americans descending into addiction through no fault of their own plays out, there are other stories that complement this dire situation on the ground.
Rick Mountcastle (Peter Sarsgaard) and Randy Ramseyer (John Hoogenakker) work as US attorneys and are out to get Purdue Pharma. However, the countless legal, political and financial brick walls they hit against are just… well, incredible. The narrative tension in this series is not only to do with Finnix and Betsy’s battle with addiction but also Mountcastle and Ramseyer’s desperate attempts to find evidence – a whistleblower, anything – that will incriminate Purdue and the Sacklers.
And yet there are more layers.
The series jumps up and down timelines, sometimes confusingly.
We constantly flit between 1996, 1999, 2002 and 2005 and we meet another key player in the story in the earlier timelines – DEA agent Bridget Meyer (Rosario Dawson), who is the precursor to Mountcastle and Ramseyer but is ploughing a lone furrow. She sacrifices everything (including her marriage) to bring Purdue down. She fails, but what she does do is leave the door ajar.
There’s so much to… well, get into here. It really is a sprawling, epic drama that encompasses so many incredible human stories as well as procedural thrust. From Finnix’s downfall to redemption, Betsy’s tragic outcome, and Coulter’s life as a sales rep – not least the Succession-like family dynamic of the Sacklers – Dopesick is just incredibly immersive, emotive and deep drama.
And for all its expert adaptation and success as a drama, you always have to remember that this is based on a true story. Yes, there are fictional characters and some license has been taken, but essentially it follows a real story.
In an age when we have to trust the science and enormous pharmaceutical companies for vaccines, Dopesick paints a very, very disturbing picture of that whole industry and what it could be capable of.
But as disturbing a story Dopesick is, the things you’ll take from this series are the characters (yes, fictional) whose lives have been destroyed by OxyContin. And that’s what makes this series this series so rich, so compelling and, ultimately, so heartbreaking. It does a really good job of presenting fictional elements into a fact-based drama, and hammering home the importance of community and the support that it can give.
If you can get used to the timeline shifts – and it does take some time to get used to, beware – this is a drama that will stay with you for a very long time, and make you sick to the stomach that a system allows such things to happen.
Dopesick is available on Disney+ in the UK