Hulu’s ‘Dopesick’ Attacks the Opioid Crisis From Every Angle

Countless American lives have been touched by opioid addiction or lost to it. And this crisis, more and more, is getting covered by TV. High-profile projects in which opioids play a part include HBO’s “Mare of Easttown,” with Kate Winslet’s title character in slow-motion grief over the loss of her son to drugs, and Showtime’s “American Rust,” featuring Jeff Daniels as a cop in a town governed by its need for pills — who is himself addicted. But Hulu’s “Dopesick,” currently streaming, targets the source of the problem, depicting corporate malfeasance and ineffective government oversight while displaying empathy for those struggling with addiction.

The limited series, starring Michael Keaton and Kaitlyn Dever, has its roots in a real-life crime story — the introduction and marketing of the highly addictive painkiller OxyContin. But in order to convey the ravages of the drug, it borrows a sense of dread from fiction.

“One of my earliest discussions of the show tonally was as a ’70s horror film,” says creator Danny Strong, who adapted Beth Macy’s 2018 nonfiction book of the same name for the streaming series. “We’re slowly creeping in this town — something’s coming for this town. And that something is OxyContin. And then it transforms people, and completely transforms who they are.”

While certainly horrifying — it’s the most intense project the often popcorn-forward Hulu has put out since “The Handmaid’s Tale” — the show resists fatalism. “Dopesick” is a show, instead, rooted in a desire to push back hard against wrongdoing: It toggles between timelines to show the rise of Richard Sackler within Purdue Pharma, the family-run manufacturer of OxyContin, and the attempt by justice officials to curtail the company’s deceptive marketing practices as the drug infiltrates an Appalachian coal-mining community.

Lazy loaded image
Dopesick — “The People vs. Purdue Pharma” – Episode 108 — Rick and Randy’s criminal investigation now threatens Richard Sackler’s empire, activists take action against Purdue, and Finnix tries to heal his beloved community that’s been ravaged by addiction. Writer Director Danny Strong, shown. (Photo by: Gene Page/Hulu) Courtesy of Hulu

That ability to shift gears — depicting the sweep of the legal battle over OxyContin, and the probing, personal examination of families and a community struggling to keep heads above water — stems from the show’s complicated origin story. “Dopesick” began its life as two different projects within the Walt Disney Co.: Strong’s pilot script, inspired by a U.S. Attorney’s attempt to bring Purdue Pharma to heel, sold to 20th Television, while Fox 21 subsequently and unrelatedly bought the rights to Macy’s book.

Once the redundancy became clear, “we literally met in the middle,” in Chicago, Macy says — to bring together their approaches and to begin a collaboration.

Strong, known for imaginatively illuminating true stories in HBO’s films “Recount” and “Game Change,” lends dramatic firepower, while Macy’s reporting, as well as investigation and interviews the two reporters did together, pushes forward the human factor. As Macy puts it, “Danny’s love of the exciting true-crime part is in my book, but where my influence came in was with families on the ground and victims.”

The epidemic’s reach became evident to Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Richard Sackler in “Dopesick,” even as he was working on a previous project. While on set, “a colleague of mine told me about the son of a friend of his who had just died of a fentanyl overdose — someone he had just seen a few days previously. It’s one of those things that has been insidious.”

Strong admits that he felt a sense of competition with Netflix’s upcoming “Painkiller,” a series that similarly features loglines touching on Sackler and on his victims, while making “Dopesick.” “Painkiller” is set to feature Matthew Broderick as Richard Sackler and to be directed by Peter Berg and executive produced by Alex Gibney, among others. “We were actually in a race against them to go into production, which sucks,” Strong says. “Their show ended up delaying for quite a long period of time, because they were ahead of us. I’d written several drafts of my script before I heard Netflix had a show. And that was a drag.”

Seen from another angle, though, there’s something exciting here, and not merely because of the crass “Armageddon” vs. “Deep Impact” story of two dueling shows — or three, if you count the planned Strong and Macy pilots at their inceptions — about something so fundamental to the contemporary American experience. Hulu was committed to “Dopesick” even when it appeared the show would be following another, very similar project. “It took a lot of courage,” Strong says. But it took an understanding of how ready the audience was to consider the subject too.

Both Netflix’s and Hulu’s productions draw on the deep well of substantial journalism: Netflix’s series uses as resources the books “Empire of Pain” by Patrick Radden Keefe and “Pain Killer” by Barry Meier. And Macy’s book was a best-seller, perhaps because its themes resonate both with those who’ve known addiction and those who see in the Sacklers a greater story of misdeeds unpunished.

“There was a lot of fascination in 2018 with the fact that they had influence-peddled their way through the U.S. government,” Strong says. The interest comes as a sad irony given the many years events went underreported: A collapsing local news economy, Macy says, meant that the story only broke through to public consciousness when life expectancy fell due to “deaths of despair.” Describing local activists she and Strong interviewed while researching the series, Macy says, “They’re putting out the bat signal that we’re in trouble here. We’ve got to wait until the economists tell us?”

Lazy loaded image
Jeff Daniels plays a cop with a drug habit in Showtime’s “American Rust.” Dennis Mong

Indeed, the line between those who have firsthand experience of opioid ravages, in their own life or their family or community, and those who simply know it from the news is becoming a defining divide within the nation. “Most of America only sees the crime reports,” says Macy. “Someone’s arrested for dealing.” That’s a triumph, she says, for Richard Sackler’s strategy of treating OxyContin users, not its pushers, as criminals. “Our jails are full of people who were early victims of what these people did,” Macy says. “I’m hoping it opens minds and hearts in a way that helps us start to finally mend problems. I’m hoping if people haven’t read the thousands of articles about this, they can watch these eight episodes.”

“Dopesick,” which arrives in the wake of Purdue’s bankruptcy settlement last month, promises to close the knowledge gap. It may make that shrinking number of less-aware Americans understand the loss of life and of potential stemming from this powerful drug being prescribed for moderate pain. “Dopesick” is information-dense, certainly: The investigative story in the series has the handy effect of breaking down why OxyContin was more dangerous than the opioids that preceded it, and the depiction of sales reps (including one played by Will Poulter) pushing it gives a sense of how the tragedy grew so seismically.

Moreover, the Sackler family saga brings dimension to figures best known as avatars of avarice, people who didn’t care about the collateral damage done to fatten Purdue’s bottom line. Stuhlbarg says Sackler made decisions based on what he thought best for those who were suffering. “This medication, as addictive as it is purported to be, did a lot of people a lot of good in terms of solving their issue with pain.” Stuhlbarg adds that Sackler wanted society’s negative attention placed on, “in his words, abusers of the medication, and maybe that helped him sleep at night.”

Stuhlbarg’s evenhandedness — “Every time you play someone who’s still living, it’s essential to do as much reading so you can do as balanced and fair a job as you can do,” he says — serves the show, even if viewers might crave an outright denunciation of Sackler. The criticism of the pharmaceutical magnate enters “Dopesick” in how he dodges repercussions and, especially, what it is he’s dodging repercussions for.

The show places his wealth and ambition in counterpoint with the toughness and grit of composite character Betsy — whose plans to leave her mining job in order to live freely with her girlfriend are as important, on a relative scale, as Sackler’s desire to change the world. A workplace injury sucks her into OxyContin’s vortex. “She had big dreams; she had big hopes,” Dever says. “Every day was heartbreaking.” The actor prepared for her role by watching documentaries and reading Macy’s book, and by speaking to a member of the production with firsthand experience of addiction. “I was constantly asking him questions, making sure I was doing it right,” Dever says. “I really wanted to make sure I was treating Betsy and her story with the utmost respect. He truly was the No. 1 source for making sure I was doing everything right for her.”

Dever describes meeting this colleague as “happenstance,” and that’s the thing so many have learned — either from experiences in their own lives or simply by seeing the grim torrent of obituaries for young people whose promise and ambition were stolen from them. Addicts, or those who’ve fought addiction to a draw, are everywhere. The magnitude of the theft makes the ambitious approach of “Dopesick” — operating within disparate timelines and locations to deliver a symphonic telling of the story of OxyContin — feel proportionate and right.

Lazy loaded image
Kate Winslet stars in HBO’s “Mare of Easttown,” with Sosie Bacon as the ex-addict girlfriend of Mare’s late son. Courtesy of Sarah Shatz/HBO

“Mare of Easttown” and “American Rust,” for their part, cast their eye on parts of the country where the Sacklers’ predations have hit hardest, and they consider the stories of the places they depict with requisite seriousness. “Mare” lands on the right side of the line when it comes to addressing its characters’ mournfulness with appropriate gravity, while “Rust” slips into miserabilism. But these shows’ concerns lie with specific crimes, with opioids as the context. They shorthand opioids as the worst element among many historical forces making life challenging.

“Dopesick” makes the case that the opioid crisis is worthy of being addressed on its own terms. Having been used as an element looming in the background, this emergency now comes in for serious investigation, from the consequences with which we’re perhaps already familiar, back to the origins. This represents an opportunity on the part of Hollywood not merely to communicate essential truths about what’s been happening in this nation but to use imagination and empathy to envision something different. There’s the possibility of artistic repercussions for the Sacklers that they did not face in real life.

“The Sacklers always win,” Strong says, referring to Purdue’s bankruptcy filing shielding the family and its assets from future litigation. “But here’s where they’ve lost: They will go down in history as one of the most evil, villainous families in the history of this country.” Works like “Dopesick” — with a reach broader than all but the most widely read of books or articles — can work toward that. Paraphrasing a Strong adage, Macy says, “Our show is the trial that should have happened.”

But simply delivering justice feels somehow small for a series that can depict both Betsy’s flickering hopes for herself and the way they’re snuffed. Macy, whose next book, just completed, is titled “Raising Lazarus: Hope, Justice, and the Future of America’s Overdose Crisis,” sees in the story the potential for connection. “The nicest thing anyone has ever said to me,” she says, “was after a talk, when someone in recovery told me, ‘Until I read your book, I didn’t understand I was part of a bigger story. I thought I was just a fuck-up.” In depicting the structures and the oversights that brought our country and so many of its people to the present moment, “Dopesick” ends up executing the reverse of its horror-movie starting conceit. Within people who have been unrecognizably hollowed out by need and by one company’s greed, it reminds us, once again, of their desire for justice and for care.

The Sacklers, Strong argues, evaded true justice in their settlement. And loss of life and potential to opioids rages on. But “Dopesick” strives to imagine a path, if not toward true justice, then at least out of the unremitting darkness it depicts. “We resolve some of our storylines,” Strong says. “And we do it with characters. Their arcs collide with solutions of how we can all move forward.”