It seemed the hottest ticket in Los Angeles on Monday night was Hulu’s FYC event for “Dopesick,” where a capacity crowd at Neuehouse Hollywood was treated to an early screening of the limited series’ finale before it debuts on Hulu at midnight November 17.
Created, co-written, and co-directed by Emmy-winner Danny Strong and adapted from Beth Macy’s book “Dopesick: Doctors, Dealers, and the Drug Company that Addicted America,” the series offers an in-depth look at America’s ongoing opioid crisis. Melding several timelines together and including both fictional and composite characters, the show aims to deliver as comprehensive a look at the pharmacological addiction epidemic as possible, from the ravages waged on rural communities by OxyContin, to the Virginia prosecutors building a case against Purdue Pharma, and the machinations happening behind the scenes at the pharmaceutical company aiming to make as much money as possible by obfuscating the dangers of the drug in order to push more product.
Michael Keaton plays a small-town doctor who himself falls into the cycle of addiction, and serves as elder statesman on the cast that also includes Peter Sarsgaard, John Hoogenakker, Will Poulter, Rosario Dawson, and Kaitlyn Dever, among many others.
The finale was warmly received by attendees and the panel that followed, featuring Strong, Keaton, Sarsgaard, Hoogenakker, and Poulter, was often interrupted by applause from the crowd. It’s possible the crowd was so engaged because of the degree to which several of the panelists felt deeply connected to “Dopesick.”
“I’m generalizing, but there are certain things that are part of the common denominator for many people who become addicted, and one of them was to be consistently charming, with great personalities,” Keaton, who lost a nephew in 2016 to an overdose, said. “It was kind of a consistent thing. Also, a tremendous ability to lie. Unbelievable. And I witnessed it firsthand.”
Sarsgaard also has a relative in an ongoing struggle with addiction and found himself drawn to the project and to an episode from a previous documentary series, “America Divided,” during which time he went to an area with a severe opioid problem and learned as much as he could about the topic.
“It was invaluable as somebody who was going through this personally, to see dealers, users, other families, a jail full of 120 young women ages 19 to 25, to talk to the experts. These two scientists from Princeton, they were talking about life expectancy going down in the United States amongst white Americans,” he said. “And so when I heard about this project and the way that it was being done, I thought, maybe for other people going through this, because I imagine in this room, most of you know someone who has gone through this, it’s not at all unusual. Maybe this show can provide some of the same relief that I felt doing that documentary.”
The panel also allowed for Strong to get into his process as far as braiding the multiple narrative throughlines together across space and time.
“I originally was approached to write the record as a movie. And as I was researching it, you fall down this Purdue Pharma rabbit hole where you can’t believe what they did. And the more I was researching it, I thought, well, I can’t do this in two hours. They’ve committed too many crimes! There are too many crimes here,” Strong said.
“So then I thought, what if I make a limited series and then each episode was structured around the crime and the investigation, and then from there you could splinter off into these different stories with the victims, the criminals actually coming up with the crime, the investigators following them. Unfortunately, for me, those didn’t take place in the same year. They took place in different years. So what do I do? Well, if I was linear, then Peter and John would have showed up in Episode 7, but I wanted to tell the story of the crime. That’s when I was like, okay, I’ll just go in and out of time. I felt like that could end up being a puzzle in its own way and create its own dramatic tension.”
As for how to stay hopeful moving forward, with regards to the opioid crisis and beyond, Keaton had even more wisdom to share.
“There used to be an expression of, ‘Don’t trust anybody over 30.’ I’d say, maybe you can bump it up to 47 or 48, but fuck everybody else. It’s about young people now, man, it’s about them having the power and they have the power and they should use the power,” he said. And these tired, old [pregnant pause] people in DC, they’re tired, they’re old, and they’re corrupt, and it ain’t working. And young people can move the deal way, way faster than the rest of us and they should take advantage of it and do it in every respect.”