Dopesick – Season 1 (2021)

Dopesick – Season 1 first published by Sight and Sound, Winter 2021-22 issue

Synopsis: 1986-2005, America. Purdue Pharma introduces the opioid Oxycontin to the market, falsely claiming it is non-addictive, and using seductive persuasion and threats to push doctors, and clinics to prescribe it in ever larger doses to patients in pain. A DEA agent and a Federal Prosecutor investigate.

Review: [note that this was based on a viewing of the series’ first three episodes only]

“The time has come to redefine the nature of pain,” says Richard Sackler at the beginning of  the first episode (directed by Barry Levinson) of television series Dopesick. Though played by Michael Stuhlbarg, Sackler is a real person, heir to the family-owned business Purdue Pharma. It is 1986, and Sackler, here presented as a messianic sociopath who confuses his own business’ and global interests, is proposing to the board the creation of a new opioid, designed for long term use. His motives seem noble – an end to pain – but then we cut to a Grand Jury trial in 2005, and to the devastating effects that Purdue’s miracle drug Oxycontin has been having on communities, as federal prosecutor Rick Mountcastle (Peter Sarsgaard) accuses Purdue of misleading the public about the drug’s addictiveness, and as Virginia-based small-town doctor Samuel Finnix (Michael Keaton) expresses incredulity at how many of his prescribed patients have died. This is the collision, through cross-editing, of Sackler’s professed world-saving ideals with a more pernicious reality.

At the beginning of Episode 2, a Purdue executive tells the 2005 court that drugs usually take 10-15 years to move from inception to the marketplace, even as we watch Sackler in 1996 awaiting the first market figures for Oxycontin. Time moves in mysterious ways in Dopesick, where achronological editing allows the story to take wild narrative leap backwards and forwards, often by decades. When Mountcastle, and we with him, first meet DEA officer Bridget Meyer (Rosario Dawson), she is in the process of going through a painful divorce, and it is only ‘subsequently’ that we will see her romantic courtship with her husband – and ex-husband – to be. The effect of all this time-switching is to confound cause and symptom, damage and cure, as medication intended to solve the problem of pain in fact just creates more and worse.

Adapted by Danny Strong from Beth Macy‘s book Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America, this sprawling docudrama might use its interconnected storylines – including one about a conflicted Purdue marketer (Will Poulter), another about a lesbian miner (Kaitlyn Dever) – to anatomise the negative ramifications of Oxycontin and the opioid epidemic on so many different lives, but it is also dissecting a much broader picture of a nation in crisis. For here, as in Steven Soderberh’s Traffic (2000) or Nicholas Jarecki’s Crisis (2021), the drug is capitalism itself, and the bamboozled patient is an America addicted to, and corrupted by, the pursuit of profit above all else.

strap: Barry Levinson’s medicated miniseries forensically diagnoses America’s addiction to, and corruption by, the pursuit of capitalism

Anton Bitel