About six weeks ago, Purdue Pharma was dissolved in a bankruptcy settlement that cost its owners, members of the Sackler family, $4.5 billion.
It was exactly the outcome that the company tried to avoid 25 years ago when, with the patent on its signature drug MS Contin having expired, the company rolled out its new “miracle drug” OxyContin, the supposed cure for pain. Had the new drug somehow failed, perhaps many of the estimated 500,000 lives lost to the U.S. opioid epidemic since could have been saved. As the new Hulu miniseries, Dopesick, demonstrates, however, Purdue did everything in its massively financed, well-connected power to make sure that was not what happened.
It can be difficult to make people who aren’t directly affected by the opioid crisis care about it, considering the issue’s many complicating factors and moving parts. HBO and Netflix have both put out excellent documentaries on the subject, but scripted content has thus far mainly been restricted to crime features like Cherry or Crisis, which draw attention to some victims of the epidemic, but not its origins.
Into this void steps Hulu, along with star and executive producer Michael Keaton, to deliver a 30,000-foot view of our sprawling national disaster—or, at least, one of the several concurrent ones—in as engrossing a manner as possible. (Not to be outdone, Netflix has a similar scripted miniseries on the way as well.)
Adapted from reporter Beth Macy’s 2018 bestseller, Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company That Addicted America, the new series, which debuts this week, comes from Danny Strong, who cocreated the hip-hop soap opera, Empire, and director Barry Levinson, who has lately capped off a long, distinguished career with a series of HBO biopics like 2017’s The Wizard of Lies and 2018’s Paterno. Considering that Strong also wrote 2012’s Game Change, the HBO comedy about Sarah Palin’s entry into national politics, this team has a formidable track record on translating real-life events into pulpy entertainment.
Given the breadth of eight episodes to tell a story that spans four decades, the creators jump around in time and between storylines to show viewers what’s happening at every level of this expansive tragedy, seemingly all at once. The show crosses very real people such as members of the Sackler family and U.S. Attorney Brownlee with fictional amalgam characters like Keaton’s Samuel Finnix, a doctor in a Virginia coal mining town, and Kaitlyn Dever’s Betsy Mallum, a young miner with a bad back injury. We see Sackler scion Richard (the great Michael Stuhlbarg) meet in illuminati-like secrecy to discuss the ongoing development of OxyContin, and we meet some of the beleaguered Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents (Rosario Dawson among them) and U.S. Attorneys (including Peter Sarsgaard) in dogged pursuit of the drug makers. There’s conflicted Purdue sales rep Billy Cutler (Will Poulter) selling his soul to get Keaton’s kindly doctor on the Oxy train, and there’s, uh, Rudy Giuliani (Trevor Long) taking a wrecking ball to the U.S. Attorneys’ case. It’s a lot to keep track of, but it’s expertly streamlined.
What is most damning here, though, is the apparently accurate portrayal of the trickery Purdue used to get around the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and deliver opioids to the masses. The narrative’s linear bouncing and shifts in perspective show off how the company committed its original sin of criminal misbranding, juxtaposed with the gestating case that belatedly brought it all crumbling down. We see how Purdue used obfuscating language and fudged numbers to make OxyContin’s timed-release appear safer than other schedule II narcotics, and how it took a cushy job offer at Purdue for an FDA head to grease the approval process. All of this, of course, leads to a national spread of doctors prescribing a drug stronger than morphine in increasing dosages as patients develop a tolerance for it and, ultimately, a dependency on it.
The miniseries depicts each and every shady move that members of the Sackler family makes to turn OxyContin into a cataclysmic hit, with mustache-twirling malevolence. None of it is very subtle, but neither is back pain nor its long-preferred cure. Sometimes the only way to get people’s attention is with nerve-rattling bluntness.