Note: The eighth and final episode was not available for review yet, thus this review covers the first seven episodes.
The opioid crisis has been a topic explored in films and TV shows lately, including “Crisis” earlier this year, starring Gary Oldman, Evangeline Lilly, and Armie Hammer. “Dopesick,” Hulu’s newest miniseries, is a much a poignant and candid look at the epidemic that is driven by great character development.
“Dopesick” follows a couple of different storylines throughout a couple of eras that are woven together. The overarching story sees Purdue Pharma, a company producing OxyContin, and their journey to the top while also being hunted down rigorously by the DEA, including a relentless agent in Bridget Meyer (Rosario Dawson). The other storyline follows a small town in Virginia where Dr. Samuel Finnix (Michael Keaton) gets bites off more than he can chew when a Purdue Pharma salesman, Billy (Will Poulter), enters his life. This relationship ends up impacting many of Finnix’s patients, including Betsy Mallum (Kaitlyn Dever), a young miner in a small Virginia town that is going through so much at once. There is more than what meets the eye with every character, and the eight-episode length of this miniseries allows for plenty of great exploration. The moral of the story is that addictions are hard to break, and “Dopesick” is a miniseries that you will have a hard time stepping away from.
Kaitlyn Dever is the crux of this show. Her character Betsy has some closeted family issues, along with an addiction of her own. It should come as no surprise that Dever is the highlight of the show; after all, her range has been showing for years from “Short Term 12,” “Booksmart,” “Unbelievable,” and “Detroit.” There is something especially poignant and real about her emotional scene. One that particularly stands out is when she has a certain conversation with her mother in the second episode. Dever displays heartbreak like few others, and good luck not needing tissues during this scene. She may be the “last man standing” from her “Short Term 12” cast to not get an Oscar win (Brie Larson for “Room,” Rami Malek for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and Lakeith Stanfield for “Judas and the Black Messiah”), but her selections for projects has been stellar, and it feels inevitable that the young actress will not only be holding an Emmy in a year’s time but also an Academy Award sooner than later. Watch “Dopesick” for her performance if nothing else.
The stigma against starring in streaming or TV shows continues to be broken with actors such as Michael Keaton, Rosario Dawson, Peter Sarsgaard, and Will Poulter starring in “Dopesick”. Keaton is his usual solid self as Dr. Finnix, always providing a steady hand in his scenes and can kick butt when needed. Without giving anything away, his character arc from about the third or fourth episode onward is where his character really picks up. Going hand-in-hand with Keaton is Will Poulter, who plays the salesman that sells Dr. Finnix on OxyContin named Billy. Poulter has continuously grown up from his early roles in films like “We’re The Millers” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” Billy is a relatable character, as he begins as a wide-eyed kid that is a small fish in a very large sea. But despite having all the money and material objects he wants, he slowly matures and begins seeing through the lies his company is selling him. He’s stuck in a seemingly one-sided relationship with a co-worker (Phillipa Soo) and realizes the fires he has started. Billy goes from being despicable to a character you have sympathy for, accredit Poulter for all of that.
Michael Stuhlbarg stars as Richard Sackler, one of the higher-ups at Purdue Pharma, who has high aspirations to climb the ladder and steer the ship himself; even if that means leapfrogging your own family members. Stuhlbarg is a long way off from the loving and understanding father he plays in Call Me By Your Name, and his performance has shades of Joaquin Phoenix sprinkled throughout. His wars with the FDA and DEA can be seen on his face, which gradually grows more tired throughout the show. The family politics and maneuvering behind the scenes to avoid any sort of trouble for his company is performed perfectly by Stuhlbarg. He’s a man that has similarities to Poulter’s character; he simultaneously has everything he needs while still being empty.
Peter Sarsgaard and John Hoogenakker star as Rick and Randy, two partners trying to catch Purdue Pharma with their hand in the cookie jar. While Sarsgaard and Hoogenakker should have the most interesting storyline, they are relegated to the most generic parts of the series. Both actors are fine in their roles, but their characters are simply one-note unlike Dever, Poulter, Keaton, etc. Rosario Dawson suffers a similar fate, with her marital problems and mission are far less interesting than her trying to prove herself as a woman in her industry. She’s given far better intense scenes that she can steal, but her character felt like a few generic stories thrown into one. The time jumps certainly don’t help, and they can lead to some confusion. “Dopesick” attempts to tell this wide-ranging story, but the jumps between the mid-to-late 90s and early 2000s are easy to lose track of.
Hulu has found a unique one-and-done miniseries in “Dopesick.” Maybe there are one or two episodes too many, as the story, like addiction, becomes repetitive over the course of the show. Like Michael Corleone said in “The Godfather Part III”: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” The same can be said about the characters in “Dopesick” since no one is safe from addiction. Whether it’s drugs, a toxic relationship, or money, every main character in “Dopesick” has their own cross to bear. Steady hands both behind and in front of the camera elevate what could have been another hokey drug drama into an acting showcase.