Shifting timelines have been utilized in storytelling for as long as we’ve been telling stories and it can be a powerfully effective technique, but there’s a recent trend in both documentary series and limited fictional series to overdo it — and when that happens, there’s a danger of the viewer getting lost in the weeds. It’s like you’re sitting in the passenger seat of a car driven by someone who is just learning how to work a 5-speed manual transmission.
Unfortunately, that’s the case with the Hulu limited series “Dopesick,” which hops between multiple timelines to tell the story of how Purdue Pharma insidiously and systematically schemed to hook America on opioids, all in the name of raking in huge profits and with little concern for the devastating impacts on health, crime, the economy and the culture. Based on Beth Macy’s powerful non-fiction book “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company That Addicted America,” this is a prestige project that aims for the rarefied stratosphere of feature films such as “Erin Brockovich” and “Spotlight” and “Dark Waters,” but despite the A-list cast and the high-level production values, the end result is curiously uninvolving, due to that start-and-stop timeline, not to mention far too many overwrought soap opera plot lines and some painfully obvious dialogue.
Early on, there’s a scene in which Rosario Dawson’s DEA officer Bridget Meyer makes some calls to learn about this new drug on the streets. “You got anything on a prescription drug called Oxycontin?” she says to the unidentified source on the other end of the line. “Have there been any spikes in crime related to it?”
And then Bridget actually repeats all she’s hearing — for our benefit — and we even get a closeup of her legal pad as she takes notes just in case we need some Information Reinforcement. “Foster care occupancy has tripled. Increase in child abandonment … local jails overflowing, increase in prostitution …”
Down the road, a mother is planning her grown daughter’s memorial service when her very young grandson looks up and says, “Mommy changed after taking that pill.” “What pill?” asks grandma. “Oxy,” comes the reply. “She was weepy all the time.”
There have got to be more subtle ways to tell us about the negative ripple effects caused by OxyContin.
“Dopesick” spins the story of the horrific spread of the so-called “miracle drug” OxyContin from four angles:
- In the 1990s, Purdue executive Richard Sackler (Michael Stuhlbarg), obsessed with emerging from the long shadows of the family elders, pushes an all-out marketing campaign to sell OxyContin based on the lie that fewer than 1% of patients would become addicted to the pills.
- Hotshot sales reps hawk OxyContin by traveling the country and pitching small-town doctors and major hospitals, bearing gifts and toting pain charts and providing talking points. Will Poulter is the ambitious Billy Cutler, who isn’t above concocting a story about his father suffering from cancer in order to gain sympathy points but still has something resembling a conscience as he begins to see the consequences of OxyContin addiction, while Phillipa Soo is the even more ambitious Amber, who wouldn’t know a conscience if she stepped on it.
- Some years after OxyContin has flooded the marketplace, Justice Dept. investigators Rick Mountcastle (Peter Sarsgaard) and Randy Ramseyer (John Hoogenakker) and Dawson’s DEA agent go after the seemingly invincible and untouchable Purdue Pharma, as they see a clear link between OxyContin abuse and violent crimes, child abandonment cases and overdoses.
- In a small coal-mining town, Michael Keaton’s Dr. Samuel Finnix is at first skeptical about this new opioid, but quickly becomes a convert and starts prescribing it to his patients, including Kaitlyn Dever’s Betsy, who has suffered a serious back injury on the job but can’t afford to miss any days in the mine. (Also, Betsy is gay and knows her super-religious parents are going to lose it when they find out. “Dopesick” never misses an opportunity to pad the story with subplot melodramatics.)
The scenes involving Richard Sackler and his casually indifferent, grotesquely greedy and obscenely wealthy extended family are like something out of “Succession” or “Billions,” only not nearly as sharp. The talented Phillipa Soo (who won the Tony for playing Eliza Hamilton on Broadway) is saddled playing a bitchy villainess caricature. “Dopesick” is at its most effective when we follow the procedural investigation and are as dumbfounded and outraged as Mountcastle and his colleagues when they uncover the extent of Purdue Pharma’s duplicity and greed. Keaton is so good and so comfortable onscreen that I’d sign up for an entire fictional series about his widowed country doctor — but even that storyline takes an unconvincing turn late in the game that piles on with the heavy-handed messaging about how anyone can fall prey to the powerful grip of Oxycontin.
This is an uneven series that is often quite good but feels like a missed opportunity to be something great.