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‘Dopesick’ provides the “dope” on OxyContin and the opioid crisis


Recently, I sat in on a Zoom panel, which was part of the summer CTAM Television Critics Association event, and among many shows this season, one that was incredibly educational and eye-popping was “Dopesick,” which is playing on the streaming service Hulu.

A few years back on a Metra train into the city from Northbrook, I was curious about a Financial Times’ article that a fellow passenger was reading. Afterward, I was able to get his paper and read all about the Sackler family that runs Purdue Pharma, which was recently ordered to pay $4.3 billion and forfeit ownership of their company. This settlement was levied because of the company’s part in pushing OxyContin pills to patients and creating what we now know as the opioid crisis. The money will go toward drug treatment and abatement programs throughout the country.

“Dopesick,” from executive producer Danny Strong and starring Michael Keaton, Rosario Dawson, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Will Poulter, John Hoogenakker, and Kaitlyn Dever, who plays Betsy Mallum, brings this health crisis to bear in full detail.

ROSARIO DAWSON, as Bridget Meyer, top left, clockwise; Ray McKinnon as Jerry Mallum and Mare Winningham as Diane Mallum track down Diane’s jewelry at the local pawn shop; Michael Keaton and Nurse Leah, played by Arischa Conner; Dr. Finnix begins his decline into opioid addiction; Will Poulter, as pharma representative Billy Cutler, tries to sell Dr. Finnix on increasing his patients’ OxyContin dosages. (Photos courtesy Hulu)

The eight-part series examines how one company triggered the worst drug epidemic in American history. The series takes viewers to the epicenter of America’s struggle with opioid addiction, from the boardrooms of Big Pharma to a distressed Virginia mining community to the hallways of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Defying all the odds, heroes will emerge in an intense and thrilling ride to take down the craven corporate forces behind this national crisis and their allies. The limited series is inspired by the New York Times bestselling book by Beth Macy.

Halfway into the series, which premiered last month, I have seen a dramatization of the devastation of a drug that Purdue promoted as not being addictive, while at the same time recommending to doctors to increase dosages from 10mg all the way up to 160mg (the larger dose caused the company to change the shape of the pill to oval so the 160 would fit). Even Dr. Samuel Finnix, played by Keaton, gets strung out and must go into inpatient therapy—all the while asking his pharma rep for more pills. Dever, from “Last Man Standing” fame, is great as the only female working in the mines who sustains an injury, and it’s all downhill from there—she even steals from her mama!

Dawson, who plays Bridget Meyer, is an investigator who works with the diversion division and learns that the FDA constantly accepted the words of Purdue when placing precautions on the prescription labels—even believing that any addictions weren’t addictions at all, but as one pharma principal called it “pseudo-addiction,” which is vaguely described as the desperate drug-seeking of the undertreated pain patient and distinguishing these pleas from the desperate drug-seeking of the addict.

ROSARIO DAWSON IN a scene from ‘Dopesick’ streaming on HULU.

During the panel, Dawson, who is Black, mentioned the concern about opioids when the crack epidemic was believed to only affect those living in Black communities and didn’t garner such national support.

“This is affecting people across the nation, across the world in a different way significantly than in the way they were able to kind of paint it before as affecting certain individuals and certain communities only.”

She added: “I think that that’s just the fallacy of that, and how it was always a fallacy and has now just been broken open. And there’s just no denying how much more connected we all are to this story. It’s not so unique.”

Keaton echoed Dawson’s sentiments, with an explosive but accurate comment: “That’s the other thing, how it shines a light on white-collar—white and white-collar—America and its guilt, really.

When Rosario talks about the war on drugs, and all the way up to what happens now, this is a David and Goliath story.

“But it’s so clear now, and what has always been the case—and that’s what I mean about stigma—if you really look at the exponential damage often done by white-collar crime compared to some kid in inner-city, but it could be a kid out in the country selling a bag of weed to maybe help pay his rent or maybe just put a few bucks in his pocket because he wants to go see something. How do you even compare the two?”

Poulter is fantastic as a pharma rep who pushes the pills to physicians, offering Disney trips and golf outings.

Michael Stuhlbarg is dogged as Richard Sackler as he tries to make his family’s company the top dog as it concerns OxyContin across the globe—but at what price?

Executive Producer Strong added: “Ultimately, my main goal was to expose what happened, the crimes that were committed by Purdue Pharma, and then to dramatize, in real-time, their victims…to shine a light on what they did and also give a sense of empathy and understanding to people that are suffering from addiction, of how this happened, how this event happened, and what it does to them.”

Check out “Dopesick” Tuesday nights on Hulu. It will make you sick to your stomach about the entrance of OxyContin at first as an “end-of-life” palliative, pain-easing prescription to a prescription that has taken lives across the globe—all in an effort to make one family even wealthier.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader. She is a National Newspaper Publishers Association ‘Entertainment Writing’ award winner, contributor to “Rust Belt Chicago” and the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood: South Side of Chicago.” For info, Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago ( or email: [email protected].

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