Edward Abbey, American author, essay writer, and environmentalist, once wrote, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” Healthcare as a business model, specifically regarding pharmaceutical drugs, seems unable to avoid such a comparison.
Any buyer and seller market requires supply and demand. So what is a huge drug company like Purdue Pharma to do when a valuable patent is about to expire, if not artificially inflate the demand?
Dopesick is adapted from the nonfiction book ‘Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America' by Beth Macy, and covers how Purdue Pharma’s best selling drug OxyContin was aggressively and successfully marketed despite the company being aware of (and criminally downplaying) the highly addictive nature of its golden goose opioid.
Taking such a large subject matter that stretches out over decades is no easy task and Dopesick often lurches under the weight of its own story. Series creator Danny Strong incorporates many plot threads to give all due credence to each aspect of what happened, and the necessity for dramatic structure means that a scrolling timeline graphic is constantly pinging left or right to show us where we are.
The time fluctuations are so frequent that an investigation by DEA agent Meyer (a determined Rosario Dawson) examining the long term damage of OxyContin on communities can be followed by a segment where Purdue research and marketing head, Richard Sackler (a weak-voiced Michael Stuhlbarg) is being congratulated on the first month of sales. It’s often best to stop trying to follow the chronology and instead focus on the individual stories being told.
Of these you have several to suit your tastes. Procedural fans have the DEA investigation twinned with a ballooning lawsuit from federal investigators (the dogged Peter Sarsgaard and John Hoogenakker) to play out the legal efforts to hold Purdue Pharma to account.
Such threads reveal the shocking efforts Purdue undertook in order to guarantee a market for itself: such as inventing medical terms like ‘Breakthrough Pain’; effectively bribing the regulator to include a label proclaiming false non-addictive status; and schmoozing doctors with heavily biased and all expenses paid weekend seminars.
Is Dopesick Worth Watching?
Danny Strong wisely gives equal emphasis to the human cost of over-prescribed addictive painkillers. Michael Keaton’s portrayal of a rural based and widowed doctor is utterly compelling. His shift from humble satisfaction at his station through aggressive addict, and finally crestfallen patsy is a masterclass.
Similarly, Will Poulter’s turn as a high pressure sales rep fighting with a conscience is excellent in both telling the story and putting a face to an industry. The two of them together make the series sparkle.
Although in comparison a slower burn, Kaitlyn Dever’s slump into addiction after sustaining a mining injury is a well crafted shorthand into the effect on everyday people seeking pain relief only to succumb to something much worse.
The decision to write her as a lesbian seems somewhat cynical, designed to throw more challenges her way in the shape of disapproving parents and the like, but once Dever is in the position of stopping to take stock of what her life has become, her storyline recalls all the tragedy that befalls those wrongly subscribed an addictive substance.
Dopesick struggles to maintain dramatic impetus within its competing stories and it is likely you will pick some favourites and wait out the passing of others. This leads to some flabbiness around the middle where both the investigation hits a wall, and yet the jump back in time also fills time by just showing Purdue pushing for international sales.
Yet in its strongest moments, Dopesick tears the screen down from the profit-at-all-costs companies hidden in silhouette, and the very human cost that comes from carving out chunks of a market to find that profit.
Words by Mike Record