It’s easy to get lost with the numbers, especially if I tell you that there are currently an estimated 1.6 million Americans who have some form of opioid-related disorder, or that in 2019, there were 50,000 overdose deaths in the US related to opioid use, then it becomes clearer why opioids have been declared a public health issue and why we’re using the word ‘crisis’. But it’s only when the numbers are translated into personal stories that the impact of this epidemic really shakes you to the very core and that’s exactly what ‘Dopesick’ does, set in a small town populated by humble folk, mostly working class, many dedicated to mining. These people were the perfect “target” for the launch of the opioid OxyContin as chronic pain was a staple for many due to their working and living conditions, and the drug promised an effective solution.
So, when your trusted family doctor prescribes it, nobody even batted an eye and decided to give it a try without ever imagining the problems it would entail. The first person who didn’t suspect anything was the local doctor himself, played here by Michael Keaton, who like many other doctors in the country, initially hears there may be an effective drug for treating chronic pain, and is subsequently convinced after getting a sales spiel from one the company’s sales team, truly getting hooked by the promise that only 1% of patients present addiction problems. And this was the pitch from hundreds of other sales teams, a veritable army of sellers who were willing to convince thousands of doctors to introduce OxyContin by alleviating their concerns and skepticism with a claim that turned out to be false.
‘Dopesick’ alternates the story of the doctor played by Michael Keaton and his patients (in other words the storyline where the audiences puts names, surnames and faces to the pain caused by OxyContin) with that of Purdue pharmaceutical company, where a plan is set in motion to introduce OxyContin to strategic areas around the United States in an effort to turn it into a blockbuster drug. So hardly surprising that commercial success would be at odds with the truth, and the miniseries poses the question as to whether those responsible for OxyContin knew that they were lying when they claimed that it wasn’t addictive.
An accusation is woven around this question, leading the miniseries to jump backwards and forwards in time, from the moment the Sackler family decided to market OxyContin to the point at which effect it has had on patients becomes undeniable while also depicting the authorities’ reaction and the difficulty of turning the developing epidemic into a class-action case. Although from a distance, as they never actually coincide, the miniseries contrasts the moral compasses of the two central axes in this tale; the ambitious character of Richard Sackler, played by Michael Stuhlbarg (‘Boardwalk Empire’) and the remorse of Dr. Finnix, who suffers as he watches good people getting strung out, with a stellar performance here from Michael Keaton who carries the dramatic weight of the entire miniseries.
Although we’re not really accustomed to seeing the actor in TV series (he turned down the starring role in ‘Lost’ and we’ve only seen him in short projects like ‘The Company’), he did have personal reasons to say yes this time, after in 2017, his nephew died from an overdose involving the opioid fentanyl. It’s logical then that he was interested in starring in ‘Dopesick’, which is the first television series where the opioid crisis takes center stage, although it’s not the first one to talk about it. The final season of legal drama ‘Goliath’, starring Billy Bob Thornton, also deals with the issue and the nature of social condemnation is similar in both, but in ‘Dopesick’, which is based on Beth Macy’s novel, ‘Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America’ by Beth Macy, there is also a desire to great attention to detail, tracing the origin of the epidemic and learning lessons. If you give this one a chance, now available on Disney+, you may discover that this is one of the best dramas based on true events released this year.