Over the course of 20 years, from 1999 to 2019, approximately 500,000 people in the U.S. died from an opioid overdose. Journalist Beth Macy tracked the beginnings of the epidemic in her 2018 bestseller, Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors And The Drug Company That Addicted America. Macy’s book outlines the major players and facilitators; though it’s clear there’s plenty of blame to go around, the Sackler family-owned Purdue Pharma pushed past competitors with aggressive marketing and backroom deals. Government agencies like the Food And Drug Administration offered little resistance (and, in some cases, proved a little too helpful).
It’s a story so dismaying and infuriating, it’s been dubbed the Crime Of The Century by Alex Gibney. On the heels of that HBO documentary comes Dopesick, a limited series based on Macy’s book that’s intent on continuing her work of shedding light on an ongoing national crisis. Developed and co-written by Danny Strong (Recount, Game Change), the Hulu series has admirable intentions; according to Strong, it acts in part as the trial that Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers “never got.” But in its reluctance to give any of its many narratives the short shrift, Dopesick borders on cumbersome.
The series uses nonlinear storytelling as its main framing device rather than the occasional flashback or gut-punching reveal. A numbered scroll, à la The Last Dance, appears whenever the setting rolls backward or forward—from a 1986 family meeting, where Richard Sackler (Michael Stuhlbarg, giving a confounding-in-a-bad-way performance) first makes his plans to “redefine the nature of pain” with an opioid that can be prescribed for extended use, to 2006, when it looked like Purdue Pharma would finally face real consequences for its machinations. (Spoiler: The company’s reckoning still seems in the air.)
Dopesick is a tangle of timelines, some more compelling than others. Unless you’re watching with a notepad in hand, like a TV critic or one of several dogged investigators central to the series, it’s difficult to keep up with the dozen or so main characters, even when their stories overlap. The series lingers in the years 1996, when OxyContin first launched, and 1999, which marked a turning point in the epidemic, while also making regular stops in 2001 and 2005. Some characters, like Dr. Samuel Finnix (Michael Keaton) and Betsy Mallum (Kaitlyn Dever), are composites of the real-life people from coal-mining communities, who were targeted by Purdue Pharma for different reasons. Miners like Betsy are the customers, and a doctor like Finnix is kind of the middleman.
In this ecosystem, the pushers include pharmaceutical reps like Billy Cutler (Will Poulter) and Amber (Phillipa Soo)—though they’re more street-level—their bosses, and their bosses’ bosses, i.e., the Sackler family. Dopesick draws a clear line from the decisions being made in the Purdue Pharma boardroom and at the Sackler dining table to the training sessions with sales reps, where they were incentivized with hefty bonuses and trips to the Bahamas, to the Oxy users working their way through pain clinics for prescriptions.
Establishing this through line would make for its own prestige limited series (well, maybe more of a TV movie), but Dopesick also takes us into the sprawling investigations of two U.S. attorneys, Rick Mountcastle (Peter Sarsgard) and Randy Ramseyer (John Hoogenaaker), whose jurisdiction is ground zero for a “national catastrophe,” and who swear early on that they’re going to hold someone accountable. DEA agent Bridget Meyer’s (Rosario Dawson) story occasionally intersects with Rick and Randy’s, but she spends much of the series waging her own war against Purdue Pharma. They each get their own tense meetings with a superior or moments in the field, taking turns to fire questions across a conference room or in a grand jury hearing.
Dever and Keaton are so good in their respective roles that you want the show to stay with them for whole episodes at a time, but Dopesick is intent on finding all the guilty parties, victims, and heroes in this story. The show spans 20 years, introduces dozens of characters, and goes behind closed doors at the FDA, DEA, DOJ, and the FBI. It’s not exactly economical, but few moments feel as wasted as those spent at the Sackler family gatherings, which are wan approximations of the Roy family’s tension on Succession.
The level of detail would be more manageable if the story didn’t change its location and year every few scenes. The nonlinear structure grows increasingly disorienting: At one point, the show leaps from 2005, with a court reporter being sworn in for some court proceeding, back to 1996, as Richard Sackler strides through his home. Is the 1996 scene something that’s being transcribed by the court reporter in 2005, or are the three seconds we spend in 2005 at the start of the second episode just meant to tease how far the narrative goes? Either way, the time jump hardly feels justified.
It also speaks to the fundamental issue with dramatizing this kind of story, one with a high death toll and much more incremental progress—the difficulty of balancing education with entertainment. Dopesick tries to take the Spotlight approach: methodical, inquisitive, boasting an excellent turn from Michael Keaton. (Interestingly, the fourth estate is mostly on the series’ periphery.) Occasionally, the show offers the same level of satisfaction, as the dominoes fall in its primary investigations. But Dopesick is equally focused on the personal costs of the epidemic on government officials, well-meaning doctors like Finnix, and laborers like Betsy and her father Jerry (Ray McKinnon). Even with runtimes that exceed 55 minutes, that’s just too much ground to cover for series directors like Barry Levinson.
Still, it’s difficult to knock the show for being so ambitious and conscientious in its storytelling, especially as it demonstrates how agencies like the FDA and DEA either settled for half-measures in protecting the public or deflected responsibility. Dopesick is not an easy watch, and despite its subject matter, it sometimes struggles to establish itself as a necessary one. But when it does choose substance over gimmicky style, you won’t be able to look away.