Dopesick may have gotten a lot of rave reviews and even named by Entertainment Weekly as the part of the best of television in 2021, but unfortunately, I feel people are misinterpreting subject matter with excellence. The Hulu series is eight episodes long with each about one hour give or take. But even at eight hours, the series seems both too long on some matters and too short on others. They could’ve done 22-24 episodes all one-hour long and I don’t think it would’ve covered the problem with the opioid crisis.
While Purdue Pharma did do a lot of shady things and the Sackler family was blinded by greed and used their clout and power to avoid any culpability for so long, painkiller addiction was and is still a problem that has affected for decades and generations, not just the 20-25 years covered in this series.
I’m not saying their name, but someone in my family attempted suicide because they were on so many painkillers they were doped out of their mind. They kept going to see a clinic after an injury and every time they went in, they were being prescribed something new by a new doctor. Back then, you could do that. You could take prescriptions for painkillers from different doctors and most of the time the pharmacy would fill them if you had the money or your insurance cleared it.
And if you’re seeing a doctor’s office or clinic with multiple doctors and they’re not telling you to stop taking this and start taking that, you’re going to take whatever you’re prescribed. I’m sure Purdue exploited that notion but they weren’t the only ones. It wasn’t until Rush Limbaugh, “a model of conservatives” in America was charged that “doctor shopping” became mainstream. This was also around the same time Vioxx was taken off the market for causing deaths with those with heart-related problems.
But the issue is always more complicated than what we get. I’ll die on this hill, but I can guarantee people like Heath Ledger didn’t take a lot of medication by accident. I’m not saying he did it, but he was going through a divorce. And even in moments of weakness, we’ll do things that don’t seem rational or logical. George Carlin once said when asked what it feels like to take cocaine, “You want to do more cocaine.” Pain killers give you an euphoric feel that you try to increase it sometimes. And if 16-year-olds can be trusted with driving a vehicle running on a combustible engine in rush hour traffic, then surely anyone can be trusted to count.
Dopesick, unfortunately, never approaches the harsher issues of drug addiction. Instead, it dramatizes the problems between two people, Dr. Samuel Finnix (Michael Keaton) and one his patients, Betsy Mallum (Kaitlyn Dever) who both get addicted to OxyContin. But both of their addictions come from serious injuries. Betsy gets hurt on the job working in a mine, which looks more severe and Finnix gets injured in a car accident.
While the series shows others in the Appalachian area who are addicted, it underscores that Betsy probably needed the medicine for her back problems while Finnix’s prescription should’ve been short-lived. Even after he goes to rehab, Finnix exhibits no pain issues and seems to function getting clean and going on methadone. Once he gets clean, he starts to work on helping others. And yes, the series does show that some doctors are as to blame along with Big Pharma. A bolder series would’ve had Finnix as one of these doctors rather than the victim.
As for Betsy, her story spirals further down. Her parents, Jerry and Diane (Ray McKinnon and Mare Winningham) are outrageously portrayed as Jesus freaks to the point that Betsy is in a church as a group of people are “getting the spirit” around her. The scene and the portrayal of Betsy’s parents are done to negatively dig at Christianity, especially those from rural areas. I’m not a religious man myself but this is too extreme. At one point, the pastor negatively opposes Betsy getting any other style of help except crazy prayer sessions. So she resorts to prostitution and heroin use. You know, that always happens to women who are addicts.
I was actually kinda hoping that Betsy would rebel against her parents and the community, but no. She becomes the face of the addict who ODs, while Keaton plays the addict who rebounds and makes a difference. Gag me with a spoon I’m about to throw up.
Like I said in my earlier review, there’s too much going on here that the subplots seem episodic rather coherently telling a story. Peter Sarsgaard and Joseph Hoogenakker play lawyers who work tirelessly to build a case against Purdue that Rosario Dawson plays Bridget Mayer, a drug enforcement officer who works tirelessly to go after Big Pharma to the risk of her own marriage. Since the series begins with her getting a divorce and then flashbacking to years earlier, we know that it’s coming. Her scenes with her husband only seem to foreshadow what we know is coming.
She’s absent for the eighth and final episode up until the end to remind us that she was still in the series. As Richard Sackler, Michael Stuhlberg seems to be channeling Mr. Burns and Old Man Potter for his over-the-top role. I’m not surprised that he didn’t tie some woman to the train tracks while maniacally laughing and twirling a fake moustache.
If there is one character who seems to be more three-dimensional, it’s a Purdue salesman, Billy Cutler (Will Poulter) who wrestles with his conscience a lot until he makes a decision to do the right thing even though it could put him at risk for future litigation. Poulter and the directors do their best to not make him someone who don’t want to root for because he is also responsible. But you can see he’s riddled with guilt.
Part of the problem is that there were four directors (Barry Levinson, Michael Cuesta, Patricia Riggen and Danny Strong) helming two episodes each. This creates some inconsistency. The two episodes by Levinson have some coherency. But the episodes by Cuesta and Riggen are so overblown. Strong, who is credited as the creator and writer on most episodes, manages his damnedest to end the series well, but his episodes feel rushed to the point where we’re treated to a montage of real-life news footage focusing on how Purdue went bust. Maybe if they left Levinson, a more accomplished director, at the helm for the entire series, it might have worked better.
Even as I write this, Purdue is still battling legal battles. This past week, U.S. District Court Judge Colleen McMahon issued a ruling that could hurt Purdue’s bankruptcy protection. And I’m pretty sure while filming Dopesick, the production crew had no idea this would come while their series is still fresh. It’s great publicity, but I feel we haven’t heard the last story about Purdue.
I just hope if another limited series is made in the near future, I hope it’s more honest. A lot of people need pain medication for serious injuries or ailments. Most states have passed legislation to prevent the deceptive tactics portrayed here. Others have had to release their grasp. In 2018, the State of Oklahoma passed laws limiting the dosage those in pain managements could receive. That same year, 57 percent of the voters approve a medical cannabis referendum despite many politicians and law enforcement officials feeling it wouldn’t. Since then, medical cannabis farms and dispensaries have sprung up even in the smallest of towns. Part of the reason is it’s so easy to get a medical cannabis card. Lately, many doctors are allowing patients to have more dosage.
Either the medical community came to its senses and lobbied the government or they realized they were losing more patients. I’m not really sure about that. What I do know is that Dopesick could’ve been better. There’s too many characters and too many plotlines taking place back and forth over so many years that it’s hard to keep focus. It doesn’t really treat the subject matter the way it should. It’s more of a placebo.