The Guardian • Issue #2091

Streaming Review

Dopesick

  • by FJK
  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2091

If a good series needs a villain, Dopesick, now streaming on SBS On Demand, has it, in the form of the Sacklers. This family owns Purdue Pharma, without whom the USA’s opioid crisis might well not have happened. More than 400,000 people have died since Purdue introduced OxyContin in 1996. The company’s executives knew they were selling a substance far more addictive than their marketing claimed (“only 1 per cent get addicted” was the false refrain).

Dopesick follows the fortunes of a decent, kind doctor (Michael Keaton) who becomes involved with the drug, a young mineworker (Betsy Mallum) who is increasingly degraded through her addiction, a naive young salesperson (Will Poulter) who slowly works out how much damage his product is doing, and Rosario Dawson as a determined prosecutor who works out early what’s going on and pursues Purdue.

There is also a likeable trio of assistant attorneys who are investigating the company over its dodgy marketing. That ‘only 1 per cent’ claim turns out to have been based on a letter to the editor of a medical journal which Purdue misrepresented as an authoritative study. The show is carefully made and well-acted, especially for fans of Michael Keaton who plays a similar role to the one he had in Spotlight as a troubled but decent late-middle-aged professional.

Villains-wise, Dopesick over-eggs the pudding by depicting Richard Sackler as not only responsible for the strategy of lying about OxyContin’s addictive qualities and pushing ever higher doses on badly-educated people, but also as a deeply odd person, distant, and autocratic. Michael Stuhlbarg does a great job, but his performance slaps the audience across the face with the message that Richard Sackler’s oddness and evil is the prime mover behind the opioid crisis, leaving us with the comforting thought that if only powerful corporations weren’t headed by evil creeps, the whole system would work fine.

Perhaps this is too harsh, as the corruptibility of the USA’s health system is given quite an airing in this show. It’s a system in which Ronald Reagan gutted the agency supervising the safety of medications, leaving about 34 people to supervise some 30 thousand medications, and where Purdue found it easy to corrupt the enfeebled Food and Drug Administration, and deceptively market their drug to doctors. It’s also a class-based story: the company wrote off stories of addiction for a long time because everyone knows what poor hillbillies are like. Meanwhile the Sacklers have their meetings in galleries they’ve funded, full of expensive art. In addition to paying a $600 million US fine which still leaves them seriously wealthy, a consequence of the opioid crisis has been that some galleries have refused to take the Sackler’s money.

This could all happen here, the combination of a government that doesn’t care and corporations victimising the poor is always with us. Speaking of weak government regulation and addictions, an irony for Australian viewers is that the price of watching Dopesick is a tsunami of uninterruptable ads for gambling apps.

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