The ongoing opioid crisis in the U.S. takes center stage in Dopesick Nation, the latest docuseries from A+E Networks and Vice Media’s cable channel Viceland.
Dopesick Nation follows Frankie (pictured, left) and Allie (right), both recovering from their own struggles with addiction, as they try to help others living with addiction in South Florida.
Their task is complicated by the proliferation of corrupt rehab facilities that turn the people who seek treatment into cash commodities without offering much in return, so that even those willing to enter a program aren’t always given the treatment they need.
Previously announced as American Junkie, Dopesick Nation is a spin-off of the indie documentary feature American Relapse, directed by Patrick McGee and Adam Linkenhelt, which recently won the grand prize for best feature documentary at the Rhode Island International Film Festival.
Dopesick Nation premieres Sept. 12 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Viceland.
The 10-episode series is produced by Viceland with T Group Productions and Pat McGee Pictures. Executive producers include McGee, Ian Manheimer and Jaime Manheimer for Pat McGee Pictures, Jenny Daly for T Group, and Patrick Moses for Viceland.
The opioid crisis provides the stark backdrop for the series. Since the 90s, opioid use has been on the rise in the U.S. and Canada, with overdoses leading to unprecedented fatality rates. The increased proliferation of the synthetic opioid fentanyl has only exacerbated the problem.
But human stories are the real focus of Dopesick Nation. “Overdoses and death are a reality of this epidemic. During production, my team and I witnessed the tragic truth,” McGee tells realscreen. “We also watched unlikely heroes rise to the occasion and rescue people in deadly situations.”
The two primary heroes, Frank and Allie, are carry-overs from American Relapse, where they invited viewers into their world and offered a glimpse of an enormous, international crisis.
“We set out to do a feature documentary but soon realized this subject is much bigger and more important than just 90 minutes,” says McGee. “Whereas the feature documentary really sets up the world and introduces you to them, the series delivers closed-ended stories about their work with addicts seeking recovery help.”
The move to Viceland wasn’t just an expansion of the film though. The series represents a confluence of moving parts, with different projects melding together into one after a series of meetings between like-minded creators.
“A couple years ago executive producers Jaime and Ian Manheimer had begun developing this project. They were digging deep into the truth of the opioid epidemic and knew Frankie and Allie,” McGee explains. “My agent Kristin Peace introduced me to them and suggested we partner up. Ian and Jaimie could have signed with a bigger, more established production company, but they heard my pitch and here we are.”
It’s a tricky subject, and the added screen time likely helps flesh out the broader themes and implications.
The people who appear onscreen are sometimes in moments of crisis. They’re highly vulnerable. As such, McGee and his crew chose not to impose their own perspectives onto the narrative. “The goal of the series is to bring awareness to the epidemic but not editorialize,” he says. “We prefer unfiltered content and real dialog.”
Providing the perspective of the people who experience addiction is key to this.
Still, the opioid crisis is a political powder keg.
“There’s a stigma associated with drugs and addiction – society and the criminal system treat them as criminals,” McGee adds. “But, once you meet the subjects we followed, you quickly realize they’re afflicted with a disease. We need to be getting people treatment, not locking them up.”
That criminalization marginalizes the people onscreen, pushes their drug use into the shadows. It opens them up to exploitation, either by fraudulent rehab centers, or documentary filmmakers looking for edgy, controversial material.
That poses a challenge for someone in McGee’s position. “There’s a fine line between humanity and exploitation,” he says. “Collectively, our team is full of people who want to expose the epidemic. We’ve met people in active addiction that will be friends for life. When they cried, we cried. When they suffered loss, we suffered loss.”
That also leads to very difficult shoots, engaging with people in dire, sometimes dangerous circumstances. McGee says it tested his ethics as a filmmaker and a person engaging with other human beings.
“If you’re watching someone shoot up, what’s your responsibility?” he asks.
“Many times I wanted to scream and force my will on people not to use, but that’s not reality. Frankie and Allie have taught us that we can only be there for a loved one when they’re ready — we can’t force someone to stop using.”
It’s not all doom and gloom though. “We love underdogs, unlikely heroes, and stories that push to create social change,” says McGee. And any good underdog story offers hope.
“Although the odds are stacked against those seeking recovery, we learned that Frankie and Allie don’t give up,” says McGee.
“One of the people we were following came running up to our car and screamed for help that someone was overdosing. Our main subject ran over and gave life-saving CPR and chest compressions. If we weren’t there it’s very possible a 22-year-old young man would have been another victim to this epidemic.”
“As Allie says, ‘You never know when you have a chance to change someone’s life.’”
Watch the trailer for Dopesick Nation below: