I’m only three episodes in the Hulu limited series Dopesick about the opioid crisis involving Purdue Pharma but it has problems that are only kept together by the performances of the ensemble cast.
And that ensemble cast is also its illness. There are six stories interconnecting here jumping back and forth over many years over many different locations, that I felt numb for the first episode and only was able to understand what was going on halfway through the second episode.
The first story involves Michael Keaton in a great role he seems to vanish in as a small-town doctor Samuel Finnix living in Appalachia. He obviously seems to be the story’s heart and soul as he’s not too keen on keeping patients on painkillers longer than they should be. One of his patients composes the second story. Kaitlyn Dever plays Betsy Mallum, a coal mine worker who still lives with her parents and is a closeted lesbian. She injures her back on the job and is prescribed OxyContin.
Dever was such as a good actor in the Netflix series Unbelievable that it was a crime she wasn’t nominated for all awards. At only 24, she is showing more abilities than actors twice her age. The problem is there is a subplot here about her sexuality that seems extraneous. Worse, her parents are cardboard stereotypes of hillbilly bumpkins. They’re played by actors Ray McKinnon and Mare Winningham as Jerry and Diane but they’re too cartoonish. At one point when Dr. Finnix shows up to examine Betsy in the middle of the night, upon seeing her back, they immediately rush into the next room talking about how they’re going to pray. They’re not interested in waiting five minutes or so to hear what the doctor says.
The third story focuses on Rosario Dawson as DEA Agent Bridget Mayer who becomes aware quickly of the opioid crisis and tries to get people to listen. Since she’s a woman and non-white, she faces a hurdle in the system because a DEA supervisor says they’re more interested in busting drug cartels rather than corporations.
The fourth story involves Peter Sarsgaard and John Hoogenakker as Rick Mountcastle and Randy Ramsayer, two Justice Department officials who are trying their hardest to go after Purdue Pharma and its activities to push the drug by any means necessary. I don’t know if a meeting between them and James Comey is real or not but it provides a nice moment of comic relief when Comey thinks they’re going after Perdue Chicken.
Then there’s the fifth story which is where the series starts to take a nosedive. Will Poulter plays Billy Cutler, a salesman for Purdue who seems to have somewhat of a conscience. If anything else, his character is to show the deceptive and cutthroat methods Purdue used. If you’ve seen The Wolf of Wall Street, you should know what these scenes are mostly like. A bunch of enthusiastic men in suits high-fiving each other and screaming for joy. There’s Phillipa Soo as fellow salesperson Amber Collins who plays the stereotypical BBB (ball-busting b—h) that you’ve seen in other movies and TV shows.
Collins and Mayer cross paths as Mayer notices a town in Appalachia has a clinic that is basically a drug prescription mill and the pharmacy is constantly being burglarized for OxyContin. Purdue reps are telling pharmacies and hospitals they can be sued for refusing to allow OxyContin. There was a similar clinic in the town in which I grew up which was located not far from Interstate 75. It’s a common problem in America.
Finally, there’s the sixth story focusing on the Sackler family and mainly Richard Sackler (Michael Stuhlberg) showing what they were doing to get their drug on the market. Stuhlberg is a good actor and normally can handle any role. But here he comes off as a one-dimensional villain. I wouldn’t be surprises in subsequent episodes if he eats a live baby because he’s portrayed so sinister.
The first two episodes were directed by Barry Levinson, who directed The Wizard of Lies about Bernie Madoff. Levinson is a good director when he has the right material. But he has made some awful movies, as any director has. I’m just hoping this series is able to find its footing a little better.
The problem with the opioid crisis wasn’t the users but the fact that patients were wrongfully targeted in areas in which accidents on the job are more common, such as in coal mines. And those working in coal mines don’t have anything else to do so they take pills so they can do their jobs. But still Appalachia is still being portrayed as a bunch of Christian Bible-thumbing racist bigots. I grew up in the foothills of Appalachia and yes they do exist, but there are more intelligent and smarter people there.
Maybe the series will focus or even mention that the opioid epidemic gave rise to the use of heroin. Dealers dropped their prices so people who couldn’t get opioids turned to heroin use. Also, some doctors were prescribing it left and right that it hurt those who really needed it. Stump your toe on the edge of the table. Here’s a prescription for opioids.
There’s too many cliched characters here that it takes away from the other characters who we care about. Sarsgaard is often portrayed in antagonistic or villain roles but here he is one of the good guys. Dawson is doing her best but I get the feeling her character is going to be become another career woman who let her professional interview with her private life. Why is it always women characters who this affects? Keaton and Dever are the two standouts and Poulter is perfect as a salesperson who is giving up his soul for profit.
I hope it gets better and I hope it all comes together. McKinnon and Stuhlberg just seem to be phoning in their characters. And you’ve seen characters like the one Soo plays that the minute she appears, you know exactly what she’s going to be like. One of the best scenes for Winningham is when Betsy comes out to her as she continues to sew and you can see it affecting her and then she plays it off as she didn’t hear. They’re might be some fresh blood in this show in future episodes. Sometimes the best series have a few flaws.
Fortunately, the writers and directors took something for the remainder of the series.