Sunday, April 21, 2024

‘Dopesick’ Works Better in Small Doses

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Dopesick is an “eat your vegetables” mini-series. The kind of show with a significant, vital, and immediate message but delivers it straightforwardly. In other words, it is about what it’s about and not how. 

An 8-part mini-series about greed, corruption, and addiction, it is not meant to be binged. I recommend watching two episodes at a time. It is a mini-series that works best when taken in measured doses. 

Sadly, despite all its rage against the machine of American oligarchy and corruption, which flows from its ever-churning gears, Danny Strong’s Dopesick can feel like little more than a soap opera mixed with infotainment.

Strong is no stranger to the limited mini-series or ripped from the headlines stories. He wrote the 2008 made-for-HBO movie Recount about the 2000 Presidential election and the 2012 limited mini-series Game Change based on a 2008 book about the presidential elections with the same name. With Dopesick, Strong is in the big chair as the creator, head writer, and director of some episodes. 

The series has little to do with any elections. Still, it’s steeped in politics, local and national, as Strong attempts to wrestle with the opioid crisis, the fallout, the perpetrators, the Sacklers, and the people who have suffered. Strong and his team try to craft a sprawling story that covers a breadth of time and geographical space. At times, Dopesick feels almost like a novel. They have eight, hour-long episodes to do this, yet it sometimes can’t help but feel padded. 

Based on the book by Beth Macy, Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America, the mini-series consolidates characters and fabricates others, all to help us understand the massive systemic failure. Everyone turns in excellent performances; Strong and his team have picked a stacked cast of powerhouse hitters. This is helpful as even though there are moments when Dopesick feels like it’s running out of gas, the actors keep things rolling along.

Michael Keaton is Dr. Sam Finnix, the country doctor who married into the small coal town of Finch Creek. Keaton’s Sam is the typical small-town doctor who knows everyone in town and keeps abreast of their health. Heck, he’ll even visit the homes of one of his elderly patients to make sure she’s taking her pills.

Soon, the eager young Billy (Will Poulter) shows up at his office telling him about a new miracle drug from Purdue Pharma. Sam reluctantly begins to prescribe oxycontin (aka oxy) and is amazed by its effectiveness. He’s even more amazed by Purdue’s claim that the addiction rate of their pill is “less than one percent.” 

Poulter’s Billy slowly begins to suspect that Purdue isn’t being entirely honest with their patients or their salespeople. Something that doesn’t trouble his crush turned eventual girlfriend, Amber (Phillipa Soo), a small-town girl that cares more about getting ahead than any damage she might do on her road to success. Poulter continues to have one of the least trustworthy faces working today. His casting lends Billy an added dimension, as Poulter is excellent at showing a growing conscience play across his expressive face.

On the side of right and justice, we have Peter Sarsgaard as the dogged Virginian Assistant District Attorney Rick Mountcastle and his trusty sidekick Randy Ramseyer, played by the wonderfully named John Hoogenakker. Unfortunately, the two men seem to have little help from anywhere except their boss District Attorney John Brownlee (Jack McDorman), and a gloomy and fatalistic DEA agent Bridget Myer (Rosario Dawson). Agent Meyer has tried and failed to stem the rising opioid crisis and curb Sackler’s corruptible reach.

It’s very hard, as it is with most shows and movies like Dopesick, not to become rationally angry at the whole “whatthefuckery” of it all. Dopesick mines this well but doesn’t quite know how to build that anger or find a release valve for it. Something like Unbelievable, a limited series dealing with sexual assault, was also about how we as a society handle sexual assault, and the survivors, knew how to build our rage and how to angle it.

Strong and his writers have their hands full trying to get a handle on the massive scale of the story that, instead of becoming observant, becomes almost like reportage while at the same time also trying to be an eight-part mini-series. It wobbles back and forth between wanting to report facts and telling a story. 

Dopesick looks at every level of the ongoing tragedy and tries to personalize it. It succeeds in a lot of places but struggles in others. For example, the scenes with the Sacklers are played almost to caricature. Granted, we’ve learned over the past couple of years that, yes, rich people are often as subtle as a Captain Planet villain. Nevertheless, Michael Sthulbarg’s Robert Sackler, the president of Purdue Pharma, is played almost as an inscrutable enigma.

Robert Sackler wants to build an empire, but both Strong and Sthulbarg play it so close to the chest that it’s hard to get an accurate read on the Sacklers. Nevertheless, there’s something off about him, which even his own family recognizes. This mystery keeps the scenes with the Sacklers somewhat fascinating because they play like some opulent soap opera where we can sense the villain’s machinations but not pinpoint them.  

The Sacklers meet at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in a wing named after them. They hold board meetings with the family divided between “A shares” and “B shares.” Theirs is a type of wealth so obscene it’s almost impossible to parody. Yet, it’s still not enough for the Sacklers.

The first two episodes, “First Bottle” and “Breakthrough Pain,” directed by Barry Levinson and written by Strong, are the strongest. Levinson and Strong work well together, finding joy in people having conversations and giving us the information needed to try and get some idea of this behemoth of a crisis.

Levinson uses Checco Varese’s camera to great effect. They make the flow of information and the drama seem like one, not as later Dopesick episodes do, like two separate entities. 

Kaitlyn Dever’s Betsy, a miner and closeted lesbian, turns in a wonderfully nuanced and grounded performance. The tension at home as she deals with the heartache of seeing a woman named Grace (Cleopatra Coleman) behind her parent’s back and the eventual pain she feels from her mining injury are subtly paralleled, with both Levinson and Varese never resorting to symbolism.

Dopesick focuses more on the human cost of the opioid crisis than the systemic side. Partly because, depressingly, there hasn’t been much resolved on the systemic side, whereas the emotional human side has a lot of anguish and tortured anguish. Dever and Keaton’s characters are an amalgamation of people, but Sam and Betsy feel like real people. The problem is that scenes of addicts jonesing for another hit have been played to death, and Strong and his team don’t find new ways to portray this.

The scenes of Betsy and Sam getting strung out, becoming violent and desperate, come off as somewhat trite and cliche. Still, these scenes are necessary to show how oxycontin can transform a person. It does, as Dopesick states repeatedly, re-wire a person’s brain, so regular twelve-step programs and other drug recovery programs are ineffective. Ironically, methadone and suboxone, a narcotic, help with opioid addiction. But since the latter is technically a narcotic, it is considered unsafe despite the success rates.

Strong and his writers slyly hammer home this double standard. The one drug that is destroying the lives of millions is given little oversight. While the demonstrably helpful drug is so stringently regulated as to be regarded as worse than the opioid. America’s take on drugs, both legal and illegal, lacks so much nuance we are, in fact, not just shooting ourselves in the foot and damning ourselves with the needle.

Dopesick does a good job informing us but Strong and his team favor narrative shortcuts and jumping around chronology, undercutting much of the suspense and emotional tension they are trying to create. A mini-series is not a film. Like a videogame, it uses much of the same visual language, but it’s important to note the change in dialect when it comes to translation.

A large part of art is observing people engaging in the process of whatever they do. We see it in Spotlight or even the series Unbelievable. The directors and showrunners show us the characters doing the legwork, searching the files, and having the conversations that lead to the aha moments. Dopesick does this to a degree but rarely in a way that draws us in.

Strong jumps around the timeline to keep up the suspense. This is a typical style in which we cut back and forth between two parallel stories, usually right after a crucial piece of information has been revealed. Except there are so many storylines, this begins to grow wearisome. Especially when the legal drama, the melodrama concerning the elites, and the gritty reality of a small mining town dealing with addiction and life in the closet, begin to outpace one another.

We see the cost of going after one of the most powerful families in the country with the dissolution of Agent Meyer’s marriage and how her promotion turns into a curse because she can’t get anything done due to office politics and everyday corruption.

Still, from time to time, there is a line so good it haunts your subconscious. Take the line uttered by one of the FDA employees to Ramseyer and Mountcastle, “It looks like corruption but in reality it’s just how the system works.” To pull a quote from another limited mini-series Chernobyl, “We should put that on our money.”

Dopesick does a good job of getting that sentiment across. I wish, however, it was as engaging as it was informative. 

Images courtesy of Disney Platform Distribution

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