By Joe Berkowitz, Fast Company, October 14, 2021
About six weeks ago, Purdue Pharma was dissolved in a bankruptcy settlement that cost its owners, the Sackler family, $4.5 billion.
It was exactly the outcome that the company tried to avoid 25 years ago, with the rollout of its “miracle drug” OxyContin, the supposed cure for pain.
Had the 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 to 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 the 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 co-created 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 like 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 the Sackler family, led by 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 may be 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 mean that we see how the company committed its original sin of criminal misbranding, right alongside the gestating case that belatedly brought it all crumbling down.
OxyContin’s genesis marks the first time that the FDA ever labeled a Schedule II narcotic nonaddictive—all based on fudged numbers and obfuscating language—and 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 developed a tolerance for it and, ultimately, a dependency on it.
The miniseries depicts each and every shady move that 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.
I invoke Sanat Kumara, his Golden Scales of Balance,
the 13 Universal Laws, the 13 Blessings & Virtues,
the 13 chakras and the 12 dimensions,
completion of the opioid crisis.