Dopesick clarifies the opaque story behind the opioid epidemic and joins the ranks of some other great ruling truth movies and series.
By now, quite a few people have heard of Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family, and a much larger portion of the population is aware of what is commonly referred to as the opioid epidemic. But, as was the case with topics such as the 2008 financial crisis and the Catholic Church abuse scandal, it took a long time for the whole story to focus. Traditional news sources told these stories well, but struggled to gain public attention. A certain kind of film has emerged to fill the void. Movies like The big court and Projector took a complex and unpleasant subject and made it considerably more digestible for the general public. Now Sick – an eight-part limited series on Hulu – does the same for the story of OxyContin.
The big court, Projector, and even Erin Brokovich before them, pioneering storytelling techniques that helped viewers connect with the topic in a way that both piqued their curiosity and touched their hearts, which in turn helped elevate serious and consequential issues. Sick uses these same techniques; it cuts out its timeline and tells the story from multiple angles, just like real crime does. And, as a limited series instead of a movie, it has the luxury of a full eight hours to explain its intricacies. The viewer recoils at the bald-faced corruption of the Sacklers behind closed doors and feels like they are solving the mystery as lawyers and DEA agents unravel their misdeeds. However, it is the victims’ views that will interest them. At the start of the pilot episode, Dr. Finnix (Michael Keaton, who also starred in Projector and has some experience in the sort of ruling truth) says he can’t believe how many of them are dead now. The sinister question arises: what characters is he talking about?
The series takes its title from the multi-award-winning book of the same name by Beth Macy. This Sick is a work of non-fiction. The Hulu adaptation is kind of a hybrid. Many of the actors, such as Purdue Pharma Chairman Richard Sackler (Michael Stuhlbarg) and US Attorney Rick Mountcastle (Peter Sarsgaard), are real people, but most of those ground-level casualties are composites. Considering the immense tragedy experienced by their real-life counterparts, this is as well. Much of the action takes place in rural coalfields in Virginia around 1996 (the Appalachians really was identified as a great place to start throwing the pills). A teenage girl named Betsy (Kaitlyn Dever) tries to prove her tenacity in the mines and eventually hopes to earn enough money to leave her post-industrial town in economic and regressive depression. When she suffers from a back injury but wants to keep working, her almost too good to be true local doctor has just what it takes to ease her unbearable pain. A friendly and enthusiastic salesman named Billy (Will Poulter) visited him and left him a free sample of a brand new slow-release opioid.
To his credit, Dr. Finnix is skeptical from the start. But when Billy presents what appears to be blind third-party research that claims less than one percent of users have become addicted, the good doctor takes him at his word. The bigger problem is that the Food and Drug Administration has also taken Purdue Pharma at its word and approved the product for the market with little to no research and a misleading label. This means that in the space of three short years, thousands of doctors, pharmacists, sales representatives and some government agencies are all complicit in what Rosario Dawson’s DEA agent Myer calls a cartel. legal.
As the recent blockbuster talk, Amazon LuLaRich, Sick painfully shows how each party got involved in the crooked ploy. Richard Sackler, the nephew of company founder Arthur, is so ambitious and self-glorifying that he almost believes in its noble mission to end the world of pain. Young, attractive and savvy sales reps are encouraged to receive bonuses and tropical vacations. Doctors are not only bribed with free lectures on weekends and lobster for dinner, but they are also hired as guest speakers to promote and give credibility to the drug. And patients are given a supposedly non-addictive wonder drug that initially makes them feel better. There is a lot of reproach to be made, but the original sin was committed at the top. Yet, as is the case with MLMs, money poured in as devastation rained down.
We see and hear about the overwhelming number of people waiting in long lines at fake pain clinics, losing their livelihoods, abandoning children and dying of overdoses. It is sobering, but it has the same effect as reading about the opioid epidemic in the newspapers. What is illuminating is how the series connects the dots and zooms in on each of those dots, to illustrate the exact nature of the deception and the resulting overwhelming ubiquity of OxyContin. None of the characters can avoid OxyContin, not in their personal or professional lives, and when lawyers Mountcastle and Ramsayer have access to internal documents, paperwork fills a fleet of trucks. In short, the Sacklers knowingly triggered a huge problem.
Even casual amateur viewers will likely get a feel for the magnitude of this problem before they watch. Sick, but seeing it all put together is jaw-dropping and raging (though that’s also quite believable). The same is true of the torment experienced by a group of already tormented patients who have for too long been seen as scapegoats as the cause of the problem. A limited series – even one as well-made and well-released as this one – can’t begin to right the wrongs being done by Purdue Pharma, but it can educate while entertaining, so audiences will be on the alert next time around. Because if films like The big court and series like Sick have taught us something is that there will be a next time.
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