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It’s important enough to understand the origins and realities of America’s opioid epidemic that I’m hesitant to wholly dismiss Hulu’s occasionally informative, less frequently entertaining new limited series Dopesick. Not everybody has the time to read books on the epidemic or watch in-depth documentaries like Alex Gibney’s The Crime of the Century or even to watch the myriad condemnations of Big Pharma on every comedy-news hybrid program now airing. So if the presence of cinema’s best Batman in a scripted series is what it’s going to take to open some eyes to a national crisis, then so be it.
Still, despite powerful performances from Michael Keaton and several of his top-tier co-stars, Dopesick is a frustrating selection of questionable narrative choices and bizarrely bad performances from typically unimpeachable actors. It’s a muddled telling of an urgent story.
Like The Looming Tower, Dopesick comes across as Hulu’s attempt to do a mid-’00s HBO miniseries, this time going so far as to recruit HBO good-luck charms Danny Strong (Recount) and Barry Levinson (Paterno) to write and direct, respectively, this adaptation of Beth Macy’s Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America. The drama also features Looming Tower co-stars Michael Stuhlbarg and Peter Sarsgaard — and probably the only reason Jeff Daniels doesn’t appear here is that he was doing his own tepid, opiate-crisis-tinged miniseries, Showtime’s American Rust.
Following Macy’s book, Dopesick offers a stratified look at the floundering front in America’s drug war, interweaving real-life and fictional characters. It all starts with the Sackler family, particularly Richard Sackler (Stuhlbarg), who funnels a gnawing inferiority complex into a superficially altruistic dream of conquering pain with a miracle drug known as OxyContin. If that dream brings him billions and helps him laugh in the face of condescending relatives, all the better.
Sackler’s message percolates down to salespeople, embodied by Will Poulter’s Billy and Phillipa Soo’s Amber, who are armed with misinformation and blatant lies to pitch to doctors, like Keaton’s Samuel Finnix, on OxyContin’s seemingly magical lack of addictive properties. Those doctors, initially targeted in a few Rust Belt and industrialized states, then push the drugs on blue-collar workers, embodied by coal miner’s daughter Betsy (Kaitlyn Dever).
Finally, after Oxy saturates struggling communities and sparks waves of addiction and crime, it’s left to law enforcement figures, including U.S. attorneys played by Sarsgaard, John Hoogenakker and Jake McDorman, plus a dogged DEA agent played by Rosario Dawson, to fight the capitalist system and the government bureaucracy insulating Purdue, the Sacklers and their ilk.
Peppy stuff, right?
It’s a tough structure to translate to the screen. In its best moments, Dopesick does a good job of following the money in a trickle-down manner, implicating sales, marketing and corporate leaders, and sometimes unscrupulous doctors, in creating a drug, fabricating the conditions and terminology for which it becomes the only cure, and then manipulating the establishment through loopholes, indirect payoffs and all manner of grift. These moments are the parts of Dopesick that feel like you’re reading a book — uncinematic but lucid — rather than watching a television show that stretches incoherently across several states and two decades.
With no interest in linearity, continuity or consistency, there are only rare instances in which the history-in-a-blender perspective proves satisfying rather than merely elongating the narrative. Through five episodes sent to critics, the storytelling layers intersect only in limited ways and vary wildly in quality.
The Sackler segment is the most infuriating because it’s the one with the most tantalizing potential. The motivations of this unquestionably philanthropic, ultra-litigious and deservedly tarnished clan will someday receive enlightening treatment, but Strong has chosen to handle their story like a bush-league version of Succession, with all the infighting and conspiring, yet none of the cleverness, twisty psychology and colorful verbosity. It doesn’t help that the storyline is built around a smirk-and-slouch superficial performance from Stuhlbarg, an actor normally so reliable that his work here points to poor direction more than anything else.
The law-and-order material, driven by nearly interchangeable white guys in suits, has the advantage of not requiring Strong to imagine motivations — they’re dogged, preppy straight-shooters all — but the disadvantage of lacking characters. Even Sarsgaard, so great as a comparably determined crusader in Shattered Glass, can’t find anything quirky or even interesting to latch onto. Dawson’s part of the storyline is especially purposeless, to the point that you could trim her character completely from these episodes and neither information nor drama would be lost.
The Sacklers are real people, as are most of the attorneys and investigators, and in this telling they’re all flat and unengaging. That leaves the fictional figures in Dopesick as the only people worth latching onto. They all feel like exactly what they are, composites contrived for emotional impact, pawns to be pushed in the direction of their own individualized Oxy spirals. Keaton is expertly kindly-yet-fragile. A far superior hypothetical two-hour movie would focus exclusively on Keaton and Poulter, as a doctor and pharma rep whose unlikely bond is tested by addiction and deceit. Dever is exceptional at playing working-class vulnerability without condescension, as is Ray McKinnon, as her character’s dad.
Too often, the good parts of the Dopesick ensemble get caught up in the intercutting with the generic parts, or drowned in the cliches of their ill-fated situations. Too often the gripping facts of an all-too-real health care catastrophe are lost in the series’ melodramatic machinations. Unless you need the candy-coating of familiar actors and cinematic devices, there are many better ways to process the same information.
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