Dopesick's Takes an Unflinching Look at the Opioid Epidemic

There is an almost impossible balance that the eight-part limited Hulu series Dopesick manages to strike perfectly. When portraying such complex and widespread issues, many projects take a documentary approach that exhaustively details every component to the problem, but in so doing they sacrifice the intimate connection with the individual lives affected by that crisis. By contrast, dramas which center on a single victim's slice of the world often hone in too narrowly so that the big picture is lost.

Dopesick is the perfect union of the two, managing to never lose the forest or the trees while navigating a multifaceted and far-reaching epidemic the country is still mired in to this day. Just how does the series manage to maintain such a fine balance between the macroscopic and the microscopic with an issue so complex?

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Part of the series' trick comes in introducing an ensemble cast of characters who are each involved in a different piece of the opioid epidemic, grounding its story in how their lives are personally affected by the introduction and proliferation of Purdue Pharma's drug OxyContin. At the head of that problem is the corporate head of Purdue, Richard Sackler, played by Michael Stuhlbarge as a laser-focused executive driven to make OxyContin the company's first billion-dollar drug and completely callous to any suffering he may cause along the way. His success is inversely proportional to the growing troubles of Kaitlyn Dever's Betsy Mallum, a victim of the crisis after she becomes severely addicted to OxyContin.

Those two characters alone show just how perfectly Dopesick manages to convey the problems inherent in the opioid epidemic. Where Sackler is concerned the series explores the involvement of major government entities like the FDA and DEA, who try to navigate a dizzying world of business and politics where people are largely talked about in the abstract realm of statistics. But while those agencies struggle to rein in Purdue's insatiable avarice, addicts like Mallum are struggling financially and emotionally in the Appalachian mining country that becomes the epicenter of the epidemic. When a work-related accident severely injures her she at first needs to OxyContin to offer her relief, but much like Purdue's desire for profit, the hunger for more only ever grows.

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There are several other characters caught in the middle who only further help detail the issues inherent in the problem. There is Will Poulter's Billy Cutler, who works as a salesman pushing OxyContin as a miracle drug immune to addiction, and Michael Keaton's Dr. Samuel Finnix, who is at first skeptical of Cutler's sales pitch and then becomes so convinced by it he becomes an addict himself. As if stretching itself across so many stories wasn't enough, Dopesick jumps back and forth through time by showing these characters testifying in later court hearings, and how that contrasts with their initial optimism or naivete.

And yet the whole miniseries unfolds in such a sensible manner that the audience is never lost. Making such a story both dramatically engaging and intellectually cogent is no easy task. The individual storylines help to show the numerous moving pieces to the complex national issue and how they fit together, but manage to keep the humanity intact so the viewer begins to see how even good people become part of such an atrocious problem. If the series had the removed and clinical approach of a documentary it would not really be able to pull viewers into the emotionality and impact of the epidemic's consequences.

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When focusing on a single individual or a family it can be hard to appreciate the full scope of a problem, but in looking at that full scope the individual becomes lost to the point the problem is easy to dismiss. In a digital age where it's common to turn the blinders on to facts and figures, or to become callous after a constant bombardment of statistics on any issue at any moment, stories like Dopesick's are crucial for their ability to make audiences care about the problems of the world.

It is not exactly the easiest show to watch, and Dopesick rewards viewers who pay close attention throughout each episode. But the performances and story-telling are all so top-notch that it's sheer entertainment value should be enough to pull anyone in. And once pulled in, any viewer becomes literate enough in the crisis the show addressed to understand just how hard it is to pull back out.

KEEP READING: Hulu's Dopesick Gives the Opioid Crisis The Big Short Treatment

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Brenton Stewart (1029 Articles Published)

Brenton somehow earned a college degree in the middle of a multi-decade pop culture binge he continues to this day. His interests range across philosophy, literature, and the arts to comics, cartoons, television, and Dungeons & Dragons. Follow him on Twitter @BrentonStewart6 or reach out by e-mail at [email protected] if you have nice things to say!

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