Why you should be watching Dopesick
Ivan Radford | On 17, Nov 2021
New episodes of Dopesick arrive weekly on Wednesdays. This review is based on the opening three episodes.
Dealers, doctors and the drug company that Addicted America. That’s the subtitle for Beth Macy’s book, which inspires Disney+’s latest original drama, Dopesick, and it more than lives up to that heavy-hitting description.
The series chronicles in unflinchingly bitter detail the way that a drug epidemic spread throughout the country. It does so by focusing on the professional and the personal stakes of the capitalist horror show, from the boardrooms where the crisis is masterminded to the everyday patients who find themselves turned into commercial pawns by unwitting doctors who don’t even know they’re on a financial chessboard.
Written by Danny Strong (Empire) and directed by Barry Levinson (Rain Man), it’s a story told with outrage from the outset, as the whole thing is framed by the legal battle against the company behind OxyContin, led by assistant US attorneys Rick Mountcastle (Peter Sarsgard) and Randy Ramseyer (John Hoogenakker), with the support of DEA deputy director Bridget Meyer (Rosario Dawson). But the outrage is smartly channelled as well as keenly felt, and that clarity and focus gives a riveting tension to what becomes a slow-motion car crash.
The company in question is Purdue Pharma, which claims to have manufactured the first non-addictive painkiller – a claim that’s also manufactured. Michael Stuhlbarg plays Richard, whose brainchild OxyContin is, with a pallid complexion but a red-blooded appetite to be the next patriarch of his family’s pharmaceutical empire. What he puts in motion is less a medical venture and more a marketing campaign, as he leads the charge in getting sales representatives to flog the drug to doctors across the USA. Pain relief becomes pain management becomes any other phrase they can think of to flog the pills. When the promise of 12-hour pain relief is proven wrong, they invent the label “breakthrough pain”, then come up with a cynical solution: double the dose, a catchphrase that corrupts the pain away and instantly multiplies profits.
It would be a horribly believable scenario even without the history to prove it happened, and there’s a timely resonance in the drama’s chilling study of corporate priorities trumping public interest. Where the series succeeds horribly is it’s portrayal of the human cogs caught up in this machine. Will Poulter is superbly clueless and self-centred as Billy Cutler, a salesman who is hired to help push the pills into surgeries through blunt ultimatums, pampering conference weekends and gestures of friendship.
His dispassionate presence is contrasted movingly by Kaitlyn Dever as Betsy, a worker in the Virginia mines who suffers a back injury and is prescribed OxyContin – a supposed healing tablet that only amplifies the pain of the other pressures she’s under with its false promises of hope and an easy fix.
These are a lot of strands to juggle, but holding this prestige drama together with granite-like gravitas is Michael Keaton as Dr Samuel Finnix, whose own experiences of pain and grief make him – and by extension his patients in his tiny Appalachian mining town – the perfect fodder for Purdue’s ploys. There are few actors as good at simply staying still as Keaton, and his steely stare and composure have rarely carried such weight, as we watch that understated, trustworthy gravitas be undermined with slickly clinical precision – and, as he finds himself on the wrong side of a prescription slip, his lynchpin presence becomes the tragically human epicentre of a horror show that unfolds in broad daylight and pristine offices.
Dopesick is available on Disney+ UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.