Dopesick, On Disney+ Hotstar, Is A Hidden Gem That Makes For Addictive Viewing

There is no ambiguity here about who was right and who was wrong
Dopesick, On Disney+ Hotstar, Is A Hidden Gem That Makes For Addictive Viewing

What if the medication meant to help you feel better could end up taking your life? This is the haunting premise of Dopesick, a hidden gem that I recently had the pleasure of viewing.

Based on the book, Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America by Beth Macy, the series, created by Danny Strong, explores the opioid crisis in America caused by the drug, oxycontin. We have often heard the word oxy being used in shows and films from America, but the story behind that syllable is far from simple.

Oxycontin was a narcotic drug conceptualised and produced by Purdue Pharma. The key ingredient of oxycontin is oxycodone, an opioid that offers pain relief but also causes the patient to slowly get addicted to the medication. Soon patients required higher doses, leading to addiction. Over 400,000 people have died due to their dependence on Oxycontin while several others lost jobs, homes and even their children as the medication rewired their brain and damaged their frontal lobe.

Dopesick uses three parallel narratives to explore the magnitude of the crisis and the impact it had on millions of American lives. The first storyline follows Dr Samuel Finnix (Michael Keaton) who plays a dedicated doctor in a small Appalachian town that is home to a population working in the coal mine nearby. A young and enthusiastic sales rep from Purdue Pharma, Billy Cutler (Will Poulter) persuades Dr Finnix through charm and supposed medical facts to prescribe Oxycontin to his patients suffering from pain. He convinces him with an FDA label on the drug that says the drug is less addictive than other opioids and only 1% of patients became dependent on it.

One of the first patients Dr Finnix prescribes Oxycontin to is Betsy Mallum (Kaitlyn Dever) who suffers a back injury while working in the coal mines with her father. Her tragic story becomes symbolic of the millions who suffered for years and sadly even died because of a pill that was ironically supposed to end a nation's pain.

As the other two storylines reveal, the FDA label, the claims about the drug's slow release coating and its supposed non-addictive composition, are all false. We learn this as we follow lawyers Rick Mountcastle and Randy Ramseyer (Peter Sarsgaard and John Hoogenakker) who fought a long and fearless battle against Purdue Pharma and refused to settle or be scared away.

In the course of their research, they meet DEA agent Bridget Meyer (Rosario Dawson playing an aggregate of multiple real-life agents) who is shown to be one of the first authority figures to realise that Oxycontin is ravaging communities. Bridget's honest and aggressive approach however upsets officials at the FDA who refuse to acknowledge the dangers of the drug. In a shocking turn of events, it is revealed that the man who approved the controversial less addictive label for Oxytocin went on to work with Purdue pharma within months of leaving the FDA.

The third storyline introduces us to the Sackler family, senior Purdue officials and the man who was at the centre of this man-made tragedy, Dr Richard Sackler. Disliked and often belittled by his family for his cold and almost reptilian manner, his desperation for success and respect drives his callous approach to profit-making. No matter how clear the writing on the wall was, Richard turned a blind eye and kept pushing for marketing strategies that would help the company sell more Oxycontin. The show depicts the Sacklers and their senior officials as addicts of another kind; addicted to the millions of dollars Oxycontin was generating.

The company used young ambitious sales representatives from middle-class families and tutored them on punch lines and faux scientific research that they then used to impress doctors. Each time the company received a red flag about how the drug was having adverse effects, they turned it into a catchphrase. If the pain returned in 12 hours, it was called 'breakthrough pain'. The 'breakthrough pain' needed doctors to 'double the dose', or 'individualise the dose' which meant doctors could directly start patients at higher levels of a drug the company knew was addictive. Multiple pain-related bodies and organisations were created and funded whose 'acclaimed' doctors spoke  about the drug, reinforcing the idea that the drug was the next best thing to god.

Though the show's research is meticulous as is the authenticity of the production design across the many years it traverses, it does get hard sometimes to keep a track of which decade we are in or where a particular character was when we last saw them. Thankfully, the uniformly brilliant performances keep you engaged as does the well-written script that builds on the foundation of facts to create a moving and often disturbing picture of human tragedy.

While the makers create fictional characters to represent the millions whose lives were ruined by Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family, they stick to all the facts, figures and real names when it comes to the legal battle fought against the company. There is no ambiguity here about who was right and who was wrong and Danny Strong and his team create powerful courtroom and investigative scenes, where the shocking injustice at the heart of the opioid crisis, hits you like a bullet.

Watching Dopesick will leave you angry, heartbroken, incredulous and make you wonder just how depraved and selfish human beings can be. The potential for pure unadulterated evil in us truly makes us the most dangerous of all beings on the planet.

Surprisingly this series went seemingly unnoticed in India and even internationally. But I highly recommend watching this series that will keep you riveted throughout.

Dopesick is now streaming on Disney+Hotstar.

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