Hulu’s limited series comes close to greatness with an excellent ensemble, but pacing, some odd performances, undermine the effort.
Early in watching Dopesick, I had a moment of marveling at an achingly humanistic scene between Dr. Samuel Finnix (Michael Keaton) and his physically and emotionally wounded patient Betsy Mallum (Kaitlyn Dever). This was followed immediately by a moment of being stunned by how early I was in the episode.
This is the fundamental experience of Dopesick. It’s powerful, thoughtful, and important. It’s also a grueling viewing experience that often feels much longer than its running time.
Part of the problem is the subject matter. The opioid crisis in America is a harrowing slow-motion car wreck of human misery that we remain very much mired in as we speak. It’s yet another entirely avoidable self-inflicted wound on our national psyche prolonged by government inaction, corporate malfeasance, and our ongoing addiction to regionalism that allows us to “other” problems until they’re literally on our doorstep. Doing right by this story could not yield a bright, brisk limited series.
However, the grinding pace does also owe itself to several of the decisions made by show writer/creator Danny Strong and writer Benjamin Rubin. In their quest to make the characters of Dopesick three-dimensional, they often adorn them with so much backstory and subplot. As a result, it’s not uncommon to lose yourself in a 12-minute digression on the courtship and subsequent dissolution of the marriage of DEA Agent Bridget Meyer (Rosario Dawson) and Paul Meyer (Raúl Esparza) before returning to the plot at hand.
It is the rare limited series that likely would’ve benefitted from being, perhaps, a three-season affair. That would’ve given the show time enough to pursue these often-intriguing subplots more organically. Instead, they too often feel like unnecessary interruptions, blind alleys to get lost in without payoff. Dopesick needs to either give more time to these explorations of individual characters or cut them to the bone.
For all the complaints about length and pacing, the series has an undeniable quality to it. So often, it feels less like a dramatization of recent history and more like a horror film. Think of something like Needful Things or the recent Midnight Mass, and you might be close to the tone. Oxy-Contin has a similar effect to Things’ devilish store owner or Mass’s “angel.” It’s an interloper that slowly, heartbreakingly, invades a community, corrupting everyone in its wake. It not only brings new trouble to the places it touches, but exacerbates existing tensions and long simmer resentments. If anything, it feels even more inescapable as, at least with the supernatural invaders, years of stories have given us a playbook to repel them.
Dopesick is good, but it’s so close to great that you can’t stop thinking about where it went wrong.
Dopesick can also boast some truly excellent performances. Michael Keaton is as quiet and soulful as he’s ever been. His deep reservoirs of humanity and how Oxy uses his own caring against him make him a startingly figure of anguish in the series. The aforementioned Dever as a young miner increasingly aware she can’t stay in the only place she’s ever known, Will Poulter’s Oxy salesman Billy Cutler, and Peter Sarsgaard’s dogged man of faith U.S. Attorney Rick Mountcastle are but a few others in the show’s very deep bench.
Michael Stuhlbarg as Oxy’s biggest champion Richard Sackler gives a performance that has since proved a bit harder to unpack. Utilizing an odd cadence and accent married to a nearly affectless manner, Stuhlbarg commands attention. It is a quiet, can’t look away effort, which is rare in on-screen acting. That said, it feels so…actorly. Sackler never seems to coalesce as an actual character because time and again all I can see is the choices Stuhlbarg is making.
In a way, that offers a microcosm of the struggle to appreciate, if not enjoy, Dopesick. It does so much well and offers so many strong performances that the elements that don’t work, the performances you bounce off of, feel all the more disappointing. Dopesick is good, but it’s so close to great that you can’t stop thinking about where it went wrong.
Dopesick is now investigating the opioid crisis on Hulu.