Unlike that HBO show, Hulu’s new eight-part series doesn’t offer a laugh at the outlandish behavior of its titans of the “Dopesick” industry. But the big difference is that “Dopesick,” while a scripted drama, is about a real-life family’s alleged role in creating one of the greatest public health disasters in American history: the opioid crisis.
Based largely on Beth Macy’s 2018 book, the show attempts to dramatize how members of the Sackler family and their company Purdue Pharma, aided by lax regulations, pushed OxyContin to the public in the 1990s. The introduction of OxyContin is now seen as the start of the opioid epidemic, which has killed more than 500,000 people nationwide and left millions addicted.
The Sacklers say they take no responsibility for the crisis and will likely never face trial because of the broad protections in the bankruptcy settlement that led to the dissolution of Purdue Pharma last month. That agreement made the timing of the new series all the more important to its producers. “This series is the test it should have been,” said Danny Strong (“Empire”), who created and oversaw the show, which debuted Wednesday. “What drives the story deeper is that it’s about the dark side of American capitalism, where you have government and industry colluding.”
“Dopesick” stands apart from a growing list of high-profile books and documentaries about the crisis—including the most recent four-hour HBO documentary, “The Crime of the Century,” by Alex Gibney, partly 120-page A Justice Department report from 2006 based on leaks that were kept confidential as the department pushed for a settlement with Purdue in 2007. (Purdue pleaded guilty instead to one felony charge of “misbranding” OxyContin; three company executives each pleaded guilty to a related misdemeanor.)
The new series, which counts Barry Levinson (“Diner,” “Rain Man”) among its directors, is, in a sense, where the documentary leaves off; Using the liberties of scripted television, it ventures into the four-year investigation behind that report – as a group of federal prosecutors (played by John Hugenacker, Jake McDorman, and Peter Sarsgaard) and a frustrated Drug Enforcement Administration agent. (Rosario Dawson). )
Doing a scripted series also offered “unique benefits,” Strong said, keeping viewers inside the room with Purdue executives “as they discuss their manipulative marketing campaigns.” Those scenes aren’t word-of-mouth entertainment, Strong acknowledged, but they build on mountains of existing research by Macy, who is an executive producer and helped write the series, and on additional research by Strong, Macy, and others.
“It’s a piece of art in which the actors say the dialogue,” Strong said. “But I used those scenes as a conduit to get the facts out.”
The moral center of “Dopesick” is the story of a family businessman in the fictional Appalachian town of Finch Creek, Va., played by Michael Keaton. Samuel Phoenix. (His character, like many others, is an amalgam of several real-life people.) Phoenix is persuaded by aggressive Purdue salespeople that OxyContin is a miracle drug—a powerful, long-acting painkiller. What they insist is addiction in less than 1 percent of people who take it as prescribed.
Little does Phoenix know that, like so many real doctors, it is being manipulated with false and misleading information about its addictive properties—including a uniquely misleading F.D.A.-approved label. The label was not based on findings from clinical trials but on the theory advanced by Purdue that the drug was less addictive than shorter-acting pain relievers.
The truth becomes clear as Phoenix sees one patient after another – including a wounded young coal miner played by Kaitlyn Dever – becomes addicted. Some of them die.
Keaton, who is also an executive producer, was inspired to participate in the series in part because one of his nephews died from fentanyl and heroin use.
“You get consumed by addiction,” Keaton said in a recent phone interview. “It’s soul-sucking. It really takes great people down.”
“I am proud to hold those people accountable for the victims of this opioid crisis,” he said.
(A spokesperson for the now-disbanded Purdue Pharma, Michelle Sharp, declined to comment for this article; Paul Holmes and Davidson Goldin, spokesmen for two branches of the Sackler family with ownership history at Purdue Pharma, also declined to comment. refused.)
He said Strong decided early on to make the US lawyers’ investigation the “narrative backbone” of the series. He then decided that talks between Purdue’s internal conspiracies and the victims in Finch Creek would provide a “true understanding of what happened.”
Macy’s said he had persuaded Strong to hire Kentucky novelist Robert Gipp (“Trampoline”) to ensure that the series depicted small-town Appalachia without stereotypes. He also brought several sources to the writers’ room, including former Purdue employees and a doctor, who discussed the sales reps and the pressure he felt from his drug addiction.
Both Strong and Keaton were stunned to learn how the drug alters a person’s brain chemistry, even when taken as prescribed.
“The idea that your frontal lobe has been replaced and it can take two years to come back out of it startled me,” Strong said.
With this in mind, Strong said he made “fixing and fixing a major plot point in the past few episodes” in hopes of destroying treatment for opioid use disorder. For Macy, this meant emphasizing the effectiveness of drug-assisted treatment, in which addicts use less dangerous opioids, such as methadone or Suboxone, to regain their lives.
This also meant making sure to include some details to help clarify the record, such as Richard Sackler’s well-documented instructions in a 2001 email to “hammer abusers” and portray them as criminals.
“He blamed the wrong people and got away with it,” Macy said. “I hope people understand that many people were addicted through no fault of mine, but Purdue carried the message that opioids were now safe. I hope this show will open hearts and minds to what the real culprits are.”
Ryan Hampton, a former campaign staffer for Bill Clinton and author of the new book “Unsettled” about the opioid crisis, agreed; He said the series could help Americans see that substance abuse was not the problem. “We didn’t do that by ourselves,” said Hampton, who was injured while hiking in 2003 and was prescribed opioids. He became addicted, abusing OxyContin and eventually heroin, then lost his job and home before going sober in 2015.
“It was about the people in the boardroom bringing death and destruction to our communities,” he said. “Recognizable faces in those roles can be transformative in shaping more positive attitudes.” But Strong and Macy made certain that “Dopesick” looks beyond Purdue Pharma’s behavior to a federal government that often turns a blind eye — or worse — to the potential dangers when letting campaign finance dollars roll in.
“The Sacklers have a subtle take on the story,” Keaton said. “But Macron is looking at all the corporations that have increasingly harmed people and their communities, especially those in the lower and middle classes.”
The assistant U.S., played by Hugenacker in the series. Attorney Randy Ramser said in an email that he did not want viewers to “blame one family and forget all the systemic failures that have caused our problems.” “That mindset didn’t help us make changes to prevent a recurrence,” he continued.
It seems that little has changed since the period of time covered by “Dopesick”. In 2016, Congress rewrote federal law that allowed the DEA to keep prescription painkillers off the black market after two years of lobbying for $106 million from the drug industry. severely hampered its capability. Meanwhile, the Sacklers, for now, protected by bankruptcy settlement, are one of America’s wealthiest families. (Several states have said they will appeal the agreement.)
Ramseyer, who hasn’t seen “Dopesick,” wouldn’t say what effect he thought the series might have. But he stressed the need for change. “As a society, it seems we haven’t learned anything from that experience,” he said of Purdue and OxyContin’s story. “No one is paying attention.”