“It’s almost a statement for the show in a way, that this was the plan,” newly-minted DGA nominee Barry Levinson declares about how the pilot episode of “Dopesick.” It opens on a raspy-voiced Richard Sackler (Michael Stuhlbarg) nefariously setting the scene for the destruction his company Purdue Pharma will eventually wreak across America.
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It sounds initially altruistic when Sackler calmly addresses his co-conspirators with the simple proposition that “the time has come to redefine the nature of pain,” demanding that they address the “epidemic of suffering.” But the audience is immediately aware of what and who he is, as Levinson frames the entire opening scene on his face, slowly and quietly panning out to reveal a room full of suits intent on making millions of dollars while corroding the fabric of American society. “We just slowly, slowly, keep pulling back. Where the hell is he? Who is he talking to? And we let that settle in,” he explains about the opening scene. “You want to find a way to create a sense of drama, but not melodrama,” he says.
“Dopesick” was adapted by Emmy Award-winning creator/writer Danny Strong (“Game Change”) from the acclaimed non-fiction book “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company That Addicted America” by Beth Macy. The Hulu series focuses on the deadly opioid crisis that has killed over 800,000 people since the 1990s when the Sackler family’s company Purdue Pharma introduced the highly addictive painkiller Oxycontin, which was advertised as far less habit-forming than other medications. It takes the audience on a harrowing journey by laying out the significant damage that corporate druglords Purdue Pharma have wrought across America. Told in a non-linear, non-chronological way, it toggles between personal stories of its victims and the lawyers and DEA agents going after Purdue.
Oscar nominee Michael Keaton plays Dr. Samuel Finnix, a physician in a small Virginia town, who prescribes the medication to his patients only to witness them becoming addicts and even dying from the drug. Rosario Dawson costars as a no-nonsense DEA agent doggedly determined to bring an end to the opioid nightmare, alongside Kaitlyn Dever playing a young coal miner who begins taking the drug after a back injury.
Levinson is nominated by the DGA this year for the pilot episode of the series entitled “First Bottle,” which establishes all of the main players in the saga, from the nefarious Sackler family, to the lawyers and DEA agents pursuing them , and the unknowing victims of the insidious Oxycontin at the center of the story.
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