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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Friday, May 24, 2024

'Dopesick': The negligence that fueled the opioid epidemic

"Dopesick" (2021) premiered on October 13, 2021.

"Dopesick" is a new miniseries drama on Hulu adapted from the nonfiction book by Beth Macy and executively produced by a team including Micheal Keaton. The miniseries blends the individual stories of how OxyContin deeply affected the lives of Americans, the development and marketing of OxyContin and the government's struggle to regulate the prescription of OxyContin. The story follows several perspectives of patients, physicians, regulators, salesmen and top executives, piecing together the cultural and social impact of the opioid epidemic.  

The show plays with time as well as perspective; it jumps between different stories from the 1980s to now, exemplifying the long-term and continued effects of OxyContin. Through the fluidity of the timelines, we can see the direct effects of the misleading information and corruption pervading Purdue Pharma, like how changes in marketing created negligent overprescribing. It demonstrates the ease with which irresponsible policies evaded every corner of the health care field. 

My favorite aspect of this miniseries is its clever, stylistic approach to portraying the opioid epidemic by specifically focusing on select personal experiences, depicting a person apart from their addiction and how their addiction greatly changed their lives. Oftentimes, we are met with big statistics and overarching themes illustrating disasters. Though these large numbers are intimidating and arguably more urgent than individual stories, it’s the personal stories that impact us the most. Through exploration of these characters’ struggles, families and goals, we can see how OxyContin derailed their lives from hopeful futures. 

The two most impactful stories we follow are Betsy Mallum (Kaitlyn Dever), a young woman who began using OxyContin for a back injury, and Dr. Samuel Finnix (Michael Keaton), a caring doctor who also developed addiction after his injury in a car accident. Both their transformations show how OxyContin is able to almost completely rob the spirit, stability and hope from an individual regardless of their circumstances. It is heart wrenching to see the path of their lives from hope and growth to addiction, the slow and complete alienation of their previous lives.

Addiction is something that has touched my life, along with the lives of many other people. It is a disease for which oftentimes the blame is placed on the addict, despite the problem being infinitely more complicated. Because of this, representations in the media play a significant role in the future of understanding this sickness. I believe "Dopesick" was one of the most realistic portrayals of how addiction can invade one’s life and tear apart a family. At scenes, I felt like I was reliving moments in my life seeing addiction irrevocably transform a loved one to a stranger and having to pick up the pieces. The emotions of desperation, heartbreak and despair expressed by the actors is phenomenal as they convey the complexities of addiction as something tragic that we cannot blame on one person.

Additionally, the series portrays the inaccessibility of effective treatment and lack of development in options for those affected by addiction. Both of these characters who face addiction struggle to find effective help, as the health care system continues to fail them. An issue that I believe to be equally as important as preventing addiction is treating it, and the harsh truth that there is currently no fully effective solution should haunt us all.

Despite having a strong premise with interesting stylistic choices, the show does fall flat with some areas of the execution. With the adaption of reality to film comes issues of exaggeration and dramatizations as producers try to convey the deplorable effects of OxyContin and Purdue Pharma. At times, the scenes read similarly to a high school PSA, cartoonishly representing the Sackler family and its supporters as absurdly villainous and corrupt. Michael Stuhlbarg, portraying Richard Sackler, brings the ominous presence of a movie star villain (he stares at a world map planning his world domination with OxyContin to “cure the world of its pain”). However, through the fallacy of hindsight, we can of course see the obvious, senseless mistakes that executives, salesmen and doctors carried out. The actions seem infinitely more irresponsible with the complete picture we have today. 

Overall, the series does a good job at portraying the evil ways and negligence that resulted in the opioid epidemic and its effects on innocent people. However, its stereotypical and corny writing at times can be a turnoff to viewers that relies on the benefit of hindsight to emphasize wrongdoing.

Summary "Dopesick" uncovers the tragedy of the opioid epidemic through personal storytelling but struggles with adapting reality into a drama.
4 Stars