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‘Dopesick’ uses drama and Michael Keaton to give opioid crisis a human face

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Sitting on your couch, remote in hand, you can select a drama about an intimidating, obscenely wealthy family who are torn apart by internal strife but revel in asserting their wealth and power, even as people die. Or you can watch “Succession”.

Unlike that HBO show, Hulu’s new eight-part series “Dopesick” doesn’t laugh at the odd behavior of its industry titans. But the biggest distinction is that “Dopesick,” despite being a scripted drama, concerns the alleged role of an actual family in creating one of the biggest public health disasters in the world. American history: the opioid crisis.

Based largely on Beth Macy’s 2018 book, the show seeks to dramatize how members of the Sackler family and their Purdue Pharma business, aided by lax regulations, pushed OxyContin onto the public from the 1990s. OxyContin’s introduction is now seen as the start of the opioid epidemic, which has killed more than 500,000 people nationwide and millions of other drug addicts.

The Sacklers say they take no responsibility for the crisis and will likely never be tried, due to the extensive protections built into a bankruptcy settlement that dissolved Purdue Pharma last month. This regulation made the timing of the new series all the more important to its producers.

“This series is the trial that should have taken place,” said Danny Strong (“Empire”), who created and oversaw the series, which debuted Wednesday. “What takes the story to a deep place is that this is about the dark side of American capitalism, where you have the collusion of government and industry.”

“Dopesick” sets itself apart from a growing list of high-profile books and documentaries on the crisis – including a recent four-hour HBO documentary, “The Crime of the Century,” by Alex Gibney, based in part on leaks from a 120-page document. Department of Justice report from 2006 which remained confidential as the Department pushed to settle with Purdue in 2007. (Purdue then pleaded guilty to felony charge of OxyContin’s “branding error”; three of the executives company each pleaded guilty to a related felony.)

The new series, which counts Barry Levinson (“Diner”, “Rain Man”) among its directors, picks up, in a sense, where this documentary left off; Using the freedom of scripted television, he ventures into the four-year investigation behind this report – led by a group of federal prosecutors (played by John Hoogenakker, Jake McDorman and Peter Sarsgaard) and a frustrated Drug Enforcement agent. Administration (Rosario Dawson).

Doing a scripted series also offered the “unique advantage,” Strong said, of putting the viewer inside theaters with Purdue executives “when discussing their manipulative marketing campaigns.” These scenes aren’t perfect recreations, Strong acknowledged, but they are based on mountains of existing research from Macy, who is an executive producer and helped write the series, and additional research from Strong, Macy and others.

“It’s a work of art, with actors saying dialogue,” Strong said. “But I used these scenes as a way to get the facts out.”

At the moral center of “Dopesick” is Dr. Samuel Finnix, a family doctor in the fictional Appalachian town of Finch Creek, Virginia, played by Michael Keaton. (His character, like several others, is an amalgamation of several real-life people.) Finnix is ​​persuaded by aggressive Purdue sellers that OxyContin is a wonder drug – a strong, long-acting pain reliever that they believe creates a dependency in less than 1%. of people taking it as prescribed.

Finnix is ​​unaware that, like so many real doctors, it is being manipulated with false and misleading information about its addictive properties, including by an FDA approved and misleading label. The label was not based on clinical trial results, but on a theory put forward by Purdue that the drug was less addictive than shorter-acting pain relievers.

The truth becomes clear as Finnix watches patient after patient – including an injured young coal miner played by Kaitlyn Dever – becomes addicted. Some of them die.

Keaton, who is also an executive producer, was motivated to participate in the series in part because one of his nephews died from fentanyl and heroin use.

“You become consumed with addiction,” Keaton said in a recent telephone interview. “It is soul aspiration. You really need great people.

“I am proud to hold these people accountable for the victims of this opioid crisis,” he added.

When the series doesn’t snuggle up with investigators and crisis victims, it wanders the boardrooms and mansions of its beneficiaries, the Sackler family, whose fortune in April was estimated to be around $ 11 billion. At the forefront is Richard Sackler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who must navigate family policy and government regulations in his drive to create a successful drug and achieve the presidency of the company.

(A spokeswoman for the now disbanded Purdue Pharma, Michele Sharp, declined to comment for this article; Paul Holmes and Davidson Goldin, spokespersons for both branches of the Sackler family with a history of ownership in Purdue Pharma, also declined to comment. comment.)

Strong decided early on to make the US attorney’s investigation the show’s “narrative column,” he said. He then decided that the intersection between Purdue’s internal machinations and the sufferers at Finch Creek would offer “a real understanding of what happened.”

Macy said she persuaded Strong to hire Kentucky novelist Robert Gipe (“Trampoline”) to make sure the series portrays the small town in Appalachia without stereotypes. She also brought many sources into the writers’ room, including former Purdue employees and a doctor who discussed the pressure he was feeling from sales reps and his own drug addiction.

Strong and Keaton were both stunned to learn how the drug changes a person’s brain chemistry, even when taken as prescribed.

“The idea that your frontal lobe is damaged and it could take two years to recover from it shocked me,” Strong said.

With that in mind, Strong said he has made “recovery and healing a major intrigue in recent episodes,” in hopes of destigmatizing treatment for opioid use disorder. For Macy, that meant focusing on the effectiveness of drug-assisted treatment, in which addicts use a less dangerous opioid like methadone or Suboxone to regain life.

It also meant being sure to include certain details to help clarify the case, like Richard Sackler’s well-documented directive in a 2001 email to “hammer down the abusers” and present them as the culprits.

“They blamed the wrong people and got away with it,” Macy said. “I hope people will understand that many people were addicted through no fault of their own, but because Purdue got the message across that opioids are now safe. I hope the series opens hearts and minds to who the real criminals are.

Ryan Hampton, former Bill Clinton campaign staff and author of the new book “Unsettled,” on the opioid crisis, agreed; he said the show could help Americans see that drug addicts weren’t the problem.

“We didn’t do this to ourselves,” said Hampton, who was injured while hiking in 2003 and prescribed himself opioids. He became addicted, abused OxyContin and eventually heroin, then lost his job and home before getting sober in 2015.

“These were people in the meeting rooms who were bringing death and destruction to our communities,” he added. “Having recognizable faces in these roles can be transformative in shaping more positive attitudes. “

But Strong and Macy made sure “Dopesick” looked beyond the behavior of Purdue Pharma to a federal government that often turned a blind eye – or worse – to potential dangers while letting campaign funding dollars flow in.

“The Sacklers are the microscopic view of history,” Keaton said. “But the macro examines all of the businesses that have caused exponential damage, especially to lower and middle class people and their communities.”

Randy Ramseyer, the deputy US lawyer played by Hoogenakker on the show, said in an email that he didn’t want viewers “to blame a family and forget about all the systemic failures that are causing our problems.”

“This mindset will not help us make changes to prevent this from happening again,” he continued.

Not much seems to have changed since the period covered by “Dopesick”. In 2016, Congress rewrote federal law in a way that severely limited the ability of the DEA to keep prescription pain relievers off the black market after a two-year, $ 106 million lobbying campaign by Pharmaceutical industry.

Meanwhile, the Sacklers, currently protected by the bankruptcy settlement, remain one of the wealthiest families in America. (Several states have said they will appeal the settlement.)

Ramseyer, who hasn’t seen “Dopesick,” declined to say what impact he thinks the show might have. But he stressed the need for change.

“As a company, it seems we haven’t learned anything from this experience,” he said of the history of Purdue and OxyContin. “No one is paying attention.”

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