(Dopesick premieres on Disney+ on November 12. The first three episodes were screened for review.)
Michael Keaton leads a stellar cast in this docudrama about what was called the opioid crisis of the late 90s and mid-aughts. To call it that now, after everything that’s come to light, would be a misnomer, Dopesick argues. Instead, this was a calculated move for corporate profit that left millions of lives ruined. Under the guidance of showrunner Danny Strong and featuring the best directing from Barry Levinson in decades, Dopesick is rightfully angry. It’s also one of the most compelling mini-series of the year.
Based on true events, Dopesick charts the creation, release, and immediate aftermath of the incomprehensibly vile opioid, oxycontin. A highly addictive narcotic passed through the system through corruption and back-alley deals.
Unfolding in a non-linear fashion across America, Dopesick plays out as a part thriller, part legal drama, and part quasi-documentary. Only a handful of characters are based on real people, and they, too, are amalgamations. Yet even as the cast spreads into the dozens over ten years, the series never feels unwieldy. Like the masterful Dark Waters from last year, Dopesick is at its best when navigating the sprawling lives affected by inhumane greed; and the strength of the working class rising up to fight their torturers.
Keaton is the obvious draw here, lending his weathered charm to most of the ad campaigns. His story as the well-meaning-to-a-fault doctor of a dwindling mining community does much of the heavy lifting as well. Luckily, Dopesick doesn’t moralize or lecture. Instead, it quietly delivers a harrowing depiction of lives falling apart in real, often painfully mundane ways. In one of the most unexpected and welcome turns, it gives voice to those of the disenfranchised whose ire later turned to all the wrong directions.
Others prove equally compelling. Kaitlyn Dever is heartbreaking as a next-generation cole miner torn apart between the life she wants to lead and the dedication to her family. Peter Sarsgaard and John Hoogenakker bring much-needed levity and gravitas to the investigators chasing the source of the epidemic. Rosario Dawson’s plot takes a minute to get going, but her magnetic presence sees her through even the quietest moments. Meanwhile, the great Michael Stuhlbarg is quietly menacing as the power and money-hungry developer of oxycontin.
Much of the series is utterly chilling, sometimes to the point of hopelessness. But it smartly avoids miserabilism, allowing the time-hopping narrative to provide both levity and dramatic irony in equal measure. It’s a balancing act that doesn’t always work, even though these missteps are noticeable only in their rarity.
For example, Stuhlbarg, for all his brilliance, still plays Richard Sackler, head of Purdue, as a sociopathic Bond villain, whispering his demented schemes in half-lit rooms. It’s an issue with most films based on true stories – drama needs a singular villain. But the truth is complex, murky, and rarely black and white. Oxycontin had to pass through dozens of hands, sit on plenty of desks, and find numerous cracks to slip through before it hit the streets. It is a systemic failure so grand that Purdue Pharma walked away from their man-made epidemic by paying a fine. An intriguing sideplot sees Will Poulter gradually realize the drug he’s peddling is not the miracle his employers claim. But while Poulter is terrific in the part, the plotline feels muddled and unnecessary.
In that sense, Dopesick fails where Dark Waters soared. It is a more optimistic series, even though it hits far bleaker notes than Mark Ruffalo’s brilliant drama. In Strong’s hands, there is still faith in the system, even as that system barely attempts to conceal its corruption anymore.
But where Dopesick succeeds is giving a human face to the crime. On that front, it is an act of immense empathy, brilliantly painted and portrayed. Like Mia Donovan’s intensely painful Dope is Death, it works best as another mark on a ledger dripping red with blood. One that will take generations to wash away, if such a thing is even possible.