‘Dopesick’ is a triumph of non-linear storytelling

Rating

As we limp toward a second Covid winter, Hulu offers a look at the United States’ other major health crisis. The first three episodes of “Dopesick,” a sprawling dramatization of the opioid epidemic based on the book by Beth Macy, landed on the streaming platform on October 13. Stars Michael Keaton, Rosario Dawson and Kaitlyn Dever headline the 8-part miniseries, but show’s story of systemic failure is bigger than any one of its doctors, patients or government agents. Told across several deftly woven timelines, “Dopesick” reveals how the opioid blight got its start while capturing both the magnitude and the intimacy of the crisis.

The series shifts between characters at each level of the conflict. Michael Stuhlbarg plays Purdue Pharma executive Richard Sackler, who in the pilot’s opening scene pitches a miracle drug: a non-addictive opioid to treat chronic pain. Sackler, desiring to improve the world and to prove himself a great man, builds an army of sales reps like Will Poulter’s Billy Cutler to push OxyContin on small-town doctors through a mix of semi-legal gift-giving and (as it turns out) bogus medical claims.

One such doctor is Samuel Finnix (Keaton), who serves a tiny Virginia mining town. We know right away that Finnix is a good man; he’s the type of guy who stops by his patients’ houses after work to make sure they’re doing alright. It’s precisely because he cares about miners like Dever’s Betsy Mallum that he starts prescribing Purdue’s “miracle drug.” Only years later does he realize his tragic mistake.

Scenes from the point of view of Purdue employees show us who thought they were doing good and who was motivated purely by greed.

Balancing these storylines, plus two more that follow 1999 and 2002 investigations into the drug, is a difficult task, but creator Danny Strong is up to it. Strong, who wrote the excellent HBO films “Recount” (2008) and “Game Change” (2012), has a knack for explaining details and jargon without talking down the viewer. He cleverly explains the OxyContin marketing strategy by putting us in the room with Cutler during a 1996 sales rep training session. Boring minutiae like the language on FDA warning labels and the graphics on OxyContin commercials become exciting clues, as Strong fashions the 2002 investigation timeline into a gripping legal thriller.

Just as impressive as “Dopesick’s” engaging explanation of the crisis is its ability to juggle about a dozen significant characters without compromising the viewer’s focus. Characters like DEA Agent Bridget Meyer (Dawson) and folksy attorney Randy Ramseyer (John Hoogenakker) don’t get much screen time in any given 60-minute episode, but they feel like three-dimensional figures thanks to strong performances and little moments of characterization; an awkward but tender hug between Meyer and her ex-husband takes only a few seconds, but it reminds us that she’s a person, not just a plot driver.

Efficient characterization helps writer Danny Strong balance many storylines while still building three-dimensional characters.

This empathy might be the show’s greatest strength. The opioid crisis was the result not just of individual evil or greed (although the “Succession”-esque portrayal of the Sackler family is hardly sympathetic), but a complete systemic failure that led well-intentioned people to poison their communities. “Dopesick” takes a hard look at those systems while vividly portraying the lives ravaged by the crisis.

Watch it: if you liked “The Big Short.”

Skip it: if you’re multitasking and can’t keep track of multiple timelines.

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