There is an almost impossible balance that the eight-part Hulu series Dopesick can achieve perfection. Many projects take a documentary approach to present such complex and widespread topics, comprehensively describing each component of the problem but sacrificing the intimate connection with the individual lives affected by the crisis. In contrast, dramas that revolve around a part of the world of a single victim are often too narrowly framed for the big picture to be lost.
Dopesick is the perfect union of the two who never manage to lose the forest or the trees as they navigate a multi-faceted and large-scale epidemic that keeps the country together to this day. How does the series maintain such a delicate balance between the macroscopic and the microscopic in such a complex problem?
Part of the show’s trick is to introduce a group of characters, each involved in a different part of the opioid epidemic, whose story is based on how their lives are personally affected by the introduction. And the release of Purdue Pharma’s drug OxyContin. At the forefront of this issue is Purdue CEO Richard Sackler, portrayed by Michael Stuhlbarge as the laser-focused director who strives to make OxyContin the first billion-dollar drug in the world. Company and utterly impervious to any damage it may cause along the way. Its success is inversely proportional to the growing troubles of Kaitlyn Devers Betsy Mallum, a victim of the crisis after becoming heavily dependent on OxyContin.
These two characters alone show how well Dopesick succeeds in expressing the problems of the opioid epidemic perfectly. As for Sackler, the series examines the involvement of central government agencies like the FDA and DEA as they attempt to navigate a dizzying world of business and politics where people talk profusely in the abstract realm of statistics. But as these agencies struggle to curb Purdue’s insatiable greed, drug addicts like Mallum struggle financially and emotionally in the Appalachian minefield that is becoming the epidemic’s epicenter. As she is only seriously injured in an accident at work, OxyContin must fix it, but like Purdue’s pursuit of profit, the thirst for more grows.
Several other signs caught in the middle only help describe the issues lurking in the problem in more detail. There’s Will Poulter’s Billy Cutler, who works as a salesperson promoting OxyContin as an anti-addictive wonder drug, and Dr. Samuel Finnix, who is initially skeptical of Cutler’s sales pitch, then is so convinced that he becomes addicted to it. As if covering so many stories wasn’t enough, Dopesick jumps back in time by showing these characters testifying in later trials and how that contrasts with their initial optimism or naivety.
And yet, the whole mini-series unfolds with such sensitivity that the audience is never lost. Making such a dramatically compelling and intellectually engaging story is no easy task. The individual scenarios help show the many moving parts of the complex national question and how they fit together but keep humanity intact. The viewer begins to see good people as part of such a cruel problem. Suppose the series had the distant, clinical approach of a documentary. In that case, it might not engage viewers in the emotionality and ramifications of the consequences of the epidemic.
When you focus on one person or a family, it can be challenging to understand the full extent of a problem. Still, when you look at the total magnitude, the person is so lost that the problem can be easily dismissed. In the digital age where it’s common to turn a blind eye to facts and figures or be mentally retarded anytime after a constant bombardment of statistics on any topic, stories like Dopesicks are essential for public concern. Problems in the world.
It’s not exactly the most accessible show to watch, and Dopesick rewards viewers who carefully watch each episode. But the performance and the storytelling are so excellent that the sheer entertainment value should be enough to entice someone.