Martin Carr reviews Dopesick…
Michael Keaton might be filling column inches for his Batman return in The Flash right now, but there is something more sombre hitting Disney plus on November 12th. Dopesick is an eight part drama which explores the creation, marketing and impact of a drug called Oxycontin on America. A class two narcotic which was approved by medical regulators, then peddled to lower income, labour intensive workers who suffered from something called breakthrough pain until they became addicts.
What this series does is chart the methods employed by pharmaceutical salesmen and women to sell this to clinics nationwide. Headed up by Michael Keaton in his first television role, Dopesick feels more like a documentary at times, as it flits from board room to bar room watching the impact this painkiller has on people.
Writer Danny Strong, who is best known for his work on Empire and The Butler with Lee Daniels, does his best to take an even handed approach to narrative. Kaitlyn Dever’s Betsy Mallum offers one perspective, Rosario Dawson’s DEA agent Bridget Meyer another, while yet another point of view comes through via Michael Stuhlbarg’s insipid Richard Sackler. What this allows Danny Strong to do is illustrate the detrimental effect of this drug, even on those who believe themselves to be benefitting from it. However, what comes through, especially in the case of Will Poulter’s Billy Cutter, is how much corporate America seeks to manipulate their truths in the pursuit of bigger bucks.
With opioid addiction increasing over five hundred percent in the ten years from 1999, it is clear that America had an issue. What this dramatisation does is provide an honest evaluation of how one company profited from those unable to function without a method of pain relief. In so doing Dopesick offers up a treasure trove of pitch perfect performances, elevating this arid subject matter into something special.
Michael Keaton leads the charge as Samuel Finnix, who lives with the memory of his dearly departed wife, unable to move on and unwilling to find solace elsewhere. As an actor he is infinitely watchable, instantly engaging and builds this man from the ground up into someone of depth and emotional frailty. Making his fall from grace a masterclass in understatement, which works best in opposition to Will Poulter’s Billy Cutter.
Elsewhere it is Rosario Dawson who comes through as the doggedly determined Bridget Meyer, facing off against male superiors and federal regulators in an effort to get Oxycontin off the streets. Blocked by bureaucracy, hamstrung by red tape and baffled by officials on the take, much of what goes on is unbelievable.
As gentle persuasion turns into hard sell tactics, Purdue employ methods which prove not only unlawful, but in some cases illegal. The fact that every sordid detail which is laid bare by Dopesick actually happened, makes this a wet dream for television networks everywhere. Fatalities, human misery and insurmountable odds are the bread and butter upon which drama thrives, so it is little surprise that this series proves so enthralling.
There are those who will take issue with the shifting timelines, fragmented structure and overly detailed dialogue scenes, but a drama on medical malpractice was never going to be anything else. When you are trying to provide context for drama there needs to be some groundwork. Not only that, but audiences need to care about the characters.
Given the complexity of events in relation to those who were affected, Dopesick does a good job of making this subject matter palatable. It may not be sexy but at least there is a degree of honesty in the depiction, which hammers home how dire that problem has become over the pond.
Dopesick premiered on Hulu October 13th and is available to stream through Disney+ from November 12th.