The star-studded true-crime drama takes a harrowing look at the lives affected by the creation of OxyContin.
From executive producer Danny Strong and star Michael Keaton comes Dopesick, a captivating, star-studded true-crime saga that recounts how one company’s “miracle drug” let to America’s decades-long opioid crisis before the government was able to bring it down. Inspired by Beth Macy’s New York Times best-seller, Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company That Addicted America, the Hulu miniseries strikes a balance between legal thriller and harrowing character drama as it goes from the boardrooms of Purdue Pharma to the courtroom to a small mining community struggling to survive.
While the origin of a drug pandemic may not be an obvious choice for a must-see TV series, Strong tells ET that once he put together the key components, he realized he had a story worth telling. “The fact that a U.S. attorney and prosecutors were building a case and a DEA agent was actively trying to stop Purdue, I thought, ‘Oh, well, you’ve got two investigative thrillers right there.’ So that could make this an exciting show with a real dramatic engine behind it,” he explains. “And then when you combine that with the addiction stories, I thought, ‘Well, this could be really emotional and really moving and powerful.’”
As a result, the series is told over three overlapping (and occasionally intersecting) storylines, following board members, government agents, and local doctors and miners. Leading the cast is Keaton as Dr. Samuel Finnix, a composite character loosely based on multiple real doctors including Dr. Stephen Loyd, who used to take 100 pills a day at the height of his addiction.
“I wasn’t really ready for the journey when I signed on,” says Keaton, who was familiar with the tragic outcomes of the opioid crisis and thought it was an interesting subject to tackle onscreen. “It was compelling.” But even though he read a few scripts, it wasn’t until he was on set that he realized that “it’s going to be a lot more work than I bargained for.”
The challenge, the actor explains, was delivering a grounded performance as Dr. Finnix goes from being the source of care and comfort to the likes of local miner and closeted lesbian Betsy Mallum (Kaitlyn Dever), to falling prey to the same drug he was convinced by Purdue sales rep Billy (Will Poulter) was safe to prescribe to patients. “Without giving anything away, you see this guy’s journey and it’s a big one. In the way he looks, in the way he acts. There’s no special effects or anything, here it’s all nuanced,” Keaton says.
In addition to Dr. Finnix, Betsy, Will and a few other locals are composite characters, based on real-life accounts and experiences reported in Macy’s book, whereas Purdue chairman Richard Sackler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who was behind the development of OxyContin, and the prosecutors -- Rick Mountcastle (Peter Sarsgaard), Randy Ramseyer (John Hoogenakker), John Brownlee (Jake McDorman) -- in the case are all real people.
When it comes to composite characters, Strong found he could include “way more anecdotes into these journeys on the show than if I was confined to the events of one individual’s life,” he says, adding, “It was a great opportunity to make it broader. And in a weird way, more truthful and accurate because I was able to get way more stories in than with one single person.”
In the case of Betsy, in particular, her story was inspired by a few different lesbian miners Strong read about. “I thought that was a fascinating dichotomy, you know, having to live closeted underground and then simultaneously being so far underground and how challenging that must be,” he explains. The end result is a tragic story of a young woman who just wants to live an authentic life but is constantly denied her truth by her conservative family.
Speaking of Dever, Keaton has nothing but praise for her and his other young co-star, Poulter. “I’m crazy about those guys. Those two, they just knocked me out,” he says, while Strong also gushed about Dever’s performance as Betsy. “[She] is so incredible,” he says.
As for writing Sackler into the series, Strong found himself trying to figure out how much to humanize someone who is reviled by so many. “My goal wasn’t to vilify him. I felt like his actions speak for themselves,” he says, explaining that he wanted to get at what was motivating Sackler. “Is it just money? Well, he was already rich before OxyContin. So, was there something else? Were there other things going on with him?”
However, in the case of former Mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani, played here by Trevor Long, it was about holding the lawyer and politician responsible for his role in allowing Purdue Pharma to stay in business despite being convicted in a criminal case over fraudulent claims for OxyContin’s safety. “I had to include him because he’s a crucial element to the story,” Strong says. “His influence on this case was crucial.”
In the end, it’s clear what role Purdue Pharma, which recently agreed to an $8 billion settlement stemming from criminal charges, had in a crisis that overtook blue-collar America and resulted in hundreds of thousands of related deaths. But at the same time, the company (and people like Giuliani) are notoriously litigious. However, that wasn’t a concern here.
“It's a criminal organization. They’ve committed so many crimes. They’ve pled guilty to so many crimes,” Strong asserts, while revealing that the vetting process around writing this was the most intense he’s ever experienced on a project. “My goal wasn’t to be adversarial or to create a lawsuit. I really wanted this to be completely buttoned up and fair with particularly the trail of Purdue and their actions.”
The first three episodes of Dopesick are now streaming. New episodes debut every Wednesday on Hulu. (We may receive an affiliate commission if you subscribe to a service through our links.)