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5 Screenwriting Takeaways: The dramatic intersecting storylines in Hulu's 'Dopesick'

October 18, 2021
4 min read time

Dopesick is clearly out to hold Big Pharma accountable for the opioid crisis that still riddles America. It’s also an interesting piece of entertainment, cleverly interweaving unexpected storylines to express the personal toll the crisis has taken on individuals. Executive produced by Michael Keaton (who's also one of the major stars of the series), created by Danny Strong, with many episodes directed by Barry Levinson, there are many heavy hitters behind the show, and much to be gleaned from the slick, if often infuriating watch as the information behind how much Purdue Pharma got away with for so long is slowly revealed.
 

1. Tangible characters.  The specificity of the characters in Dopesick makes the world rich and believable. While the characters are of narrative invention, they feel real enough to have been patients and doctors affected by the crisis. There’s Betsy Mallum (Kaitlyn Dever), who falls in a mine and the unbearable pain both from her injury and big secret has her soon prescribed Oxycontin by Doctor Samuel Finnix (Michael Keaton). There’s a group of people who were swindled into appearing in what they think was a public service video about America’s neglect of a “pain crisis” and that no one should live in pain. There’re Rick Mountcastle (Peter Sarsgaard) and Randy Ramseyer (John Hoogenakker), both based on real people, who worked for the DA’s office and never gave up on holding Purdue responsible. There are also many more as it takes many characters to show just how far-reaching the crisis truly is. But what makes these characters great is that they each have a personal struggle or goal that is so specific that even the smallest side character feels engaging and motivated to serve the large narrative. 

2. Intersecting storylines.  It’s no easy feat to pull off Magnolia or Traffic-level interesting storylines in a movie, but Dopesick does a great job of doing just that. At the outset of the series, it's hard to believe just how intimately a drug sales rep will become involved with a small-town doctor, or how closely a multi-millionaire will affect the life of a young miner discovering her sexuality, but Dopesick connects all these people, asking how far will they go to get rich, and how far will you go to do the right thing and hold people accountable. 

3. Thriller meets true story.  When an early line in your story is: “Our community is ground zero for a growing national catastrophe,” writers are doing a good job setting up a thriller grounded in truth. In this case, that community is in rural Colorado where a lonely widower is easily lured in by the glitz, glamor and plentiful lobster servings provided by big pharma ready to wine-and-dine doctors until they can no longer resist. Dr. Finnix wants to do right by his patients, but he saw how Oxycontin eased his now-deceased wife’s pain at the end of her life when she suffered from cancer. He also serves a unique community that bears the pain of people who helped build America from the ground up by mining for steel. People who want to keep working at all costs. Somewhat unbeknownst to him, Finnix helps set the clock on the ticking time bomb of addiction in his town when he starts prescribing a highly addictive drug to many of his patients. 

4. The power of Michael Keaton.  Keaton as Finnix is a fascinating watch. It is interesting to root for someone who is not asking enough questions about a brand new drug, or who is easily lured by the offer of a speaking tour, or a pretty woman in his age range who appeals to his most base desires. Finnix is a reminder that doctors are human, doctors are fallible, and often, we are our own best advocates in care. But the great trick of the writing of this show really comes from the fact that everyone has personal stakes invested in the sale or the takedown of Oxycontin that often seem to outweigh the stakes of personal health. 

5. Adapting IP.  Dopesick is based on the book by journalist Beth Macy, who has stated that her hope with the series is to de-stigmatize those who became addicted to Oxy as people who never started out as addicts. She stated she wanted to, “open minds and soften hearts.” As a writer on the show, Macy stated cutting the book down to TV-friendly material was a challenge. She told WVTF: “I love taking ten pages to explain the history, for instance, of the war on drugs. Actually, I take about thirty pages to explain it (in a book due out in 2022) — you could never do that in a TV show because you have to show it. You don't cut a TV show with a scene that's basically a PowerPoint." Macy, along with creator Strong, have succeeded, due to always coming from a place of character while also embracing the history Macy so much wanted to include.

Final Takeaway: Dopesick is a fascinating watch of interweaving stories and a damning look at how Purdue Pharma got away with an appalling amount of lies for so many years. The show will likely satisfy buffs of the law, lovers of present-day historical fiction, or just those who like to be impressed by interweaving stories that payoff in very moving ways. 

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