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Dopesick Review: The Chilling Story of America’s Opioid Crisis

In Dopesick, which starts streaming on Disney+ November 12th, Michael Keaton plays Sam Finnix, the family doctor anyone would want to take care of them. Warm and intelligent, he’s the kind of doctor that stops at an elderly patient’s home after work to make sure she’s taken her medication. He’s still treating adults he delivered as Babies in the same small Virginian mining town.

Eventually, Finnix ends up in front of a grand jury, pale and shell shocked. When the prosecutor asks how his patients reacted to the drug OxyContin, he offers a chilling reply.

“I can’t believe how many of them are dead now.”

Dopesick is a series that tackles a complex story, as ambitious as it is emotional. It shows the start of the OxyContin opioid addiction crisis from several angles: doctors and patients using the drug, prosecutors trying to hold the manufacturer accountable, and the drugmaker itself.


Character actor Michael Stuhlbarg plays Purdue Pharma’s onetime president Richard Sackler with the creepy intensity of a Bond villain. Under pressure from his family and driven to outdo the accomplishments of his uncle Arthur Sackler – who pioneered the marketing strategy for Valium, Sackler pushes the family-owned company to market OxyContin heavily.

As Sackler explains, OxyContin has a protective coating that time-releases the drug, allowing the company to claim that less than 1% of patients would become addicted to the Opioid. Some of Dopesick’s most powerful scenes show Sackler’s intensity when dealing with the army of salespeople given the task of persuading doctors to prescribe OxyContin instead of other rival painkillers, producing a level of profit that would make the Sacklers one of America’s wealthiest families.

The series soon reveals a darker side to the highly addictive drug, as those who began to abuse it learn to crush the tablets into a powder that can be inhaled. Local law enforcement soon noticed that previously crime-free towns were now drowning in crime and desperation.

Peter Sarsgaard and John Hoogenakker are engaging as the pair of assistant U.S. attorneys trying to gather enough evidence to prosecute Purdue Pharma executives, sifting through endless paperwork and lobbying efforts. Hoogenakker’s prosecutor recalls a story about a doctor they arrested for selling the pills out of his car to an 11-year old girl. “When we arrested him, he thanked us”. He tells an agent at the Drug Enforcement Administration, played by Rosario Dawson. At that moment, it becomes clear their local community is ground zero for a national catastrophe.

Dopesick authentically portrays the small, working-class, predominantly white communities ravaged by the opioid crisis. There have been a handful of TV series and films set in such towns recently, including Maid, Mare of Easton and American Rust. Often such areas are depicted in this kind of shows as relentlessly depressing and deprived. Dopesick excels in showing a struggling community, yet filled with proud and hardworking people who love their town. It outlines the reality of these people’s circumstances without pandering or stereotypes.

Kaitlyn Dever, in particular, shines as Betsy – a young, closeted gay woman who loves working in the mines with her father, though she also yearns to live in a place where she can be herself without fear of being ostracised. But when a back injury at the mine leads Betsy to take OxyContin prescribed by Dr Finnix, her fortunes change dramatically.

Adapted by Danny String (co-creator of Empire) from a book by Beth Macy, Dopesick switches between storylines and periods in a way that can be a little confusing, despite on-screen graphics showing what year scenes are set in.

Dopesick still manages to condense a complicated story into a compelling, heartbreaking series – detailing the human cost of a crisis that started in company boardrooms, earned shareholders billions and turned a country upside down in the process.

Dopesick stars Michael Keaton, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Will Poulter, Kaitlen Dever, Rosario Dawson, John Hoogenakker, Jake Mcdornan and Phillipa Soo; it arrives on DIsney+ November 12th.

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