‘How to Fix a Drug Scandal’ Review: Netflix’s True-Crime Doc Is a Boring ‘Breaking Bad’
Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction, but most times it’s not. Sometimes people behave just the way you expect them to: They take advantage of an opportunity, they get addicted along the way (to the thrill of getting away with it, the accolades they receive, or the effects of literal drugs), they make mistakes, and they commit a series of small sins without the intention of harming others. And sometimes those small sins add up to be crimes that affect tens of thousands of people, as in the case of the new Netflix true-crime documentary How to Fix a Drug Scandal.
As the synopsis goes: “In 2013, Massachusetts State Police arrested 35-year-old crime drug lab chemist Sonja Farak for tampering with evidence. Over time, details emerged that Farak had been in fact using the drugs that she was tasked with testing. The scope of Farak’s addiction—and the number of people convicted as a result of her drug testing—comes to light, despite repeated efforts to suppress evidence in the case.” Giving context to this case is the related investigation of state lab chemist Annie Dookhan, who was ultimately charged with obstruction of justice and falsification of academic records, but whose personal failings add a curious twist to the tale.
Directed by Erin Lee Carr (Mommy Dead and Dearest, Dirty Money), the new four-part series of roughly hour-long episodes examines an essential, but obscured, part of the criminal justice system: The government drug labs responsible for identifying and verifying evidence. But all too often, How to Fix a Drug Scandal tries to gussy up the rather straight-forward cases with dramatic reenactments while suffering from plodding pacing of an over-stretched narrative that lacks focus and repeats itself multiple times to pad out the runtime. And though the documentary’s title suggests an explanation as to how a possible cover-up could have taken place, there’s very little exploration into it beyond restating the facts that played out. There’s also more of a focus on humanizing the criminal chemists Farak and Dookhan than the tens of thousands of potentially innocent victims directly affected by their actions, even when the ACLU gets involved.
How to Fix a Drug Scandal has a two-pronged approach to telling this tale: One is to explore the stories of Farak and Dookhan from their childhoods to their ultimate criminal behavior and the consequences of it. The other is to take aim at a potential government cover-up in which presumed wrongful convictions based on Farak and Dookhan’s tainted work were defended instead of vindicated, along with an undercurrent criticizing America’s “War on Drugs.” It’s also a tale of two cities: Boston in the urban east and Amherst in the rural west of Massachusetts, though the distinctions here don’t really add much to the story. The same can be said for the decision to compare Farak and Dookhan’s cases. The focus may be on Farak with Dookhan’s story accompanying it for context, but there’s too much from both scandals for a feature-length documentary yet not quite enough to fill out all four episodes of this docu-series. A two-part series–one focusing on the chemists and their character failings, one focusing on law enforcement personnel and their professional failings–would have given us a tighter, more focused, and more compelling narrative.
But that’s not what we got. Instead, every factoid discovered in the making of How to Fix a Drug Scandal–Farak’s history of drug use, Dookhan’s decision to falsify productivity and academic achievements in order to feel accepted and appreciated–is metered out at a frustrating pace. Rather than being intended to inform and educate, How to Fix a Drug Scandal feels designed to push and pull on our emotions in an artificial way: It paints a charismatic picture of Farak’s childhood and young adult life in early episodes so that you’ll feel sympathetic towards her failings before hitting you with the extent of her drug addiction in latter episodes with the expectation of having viewers “turn” on Farak. Those facts should have been presented up front without all the emotional manipulation in between. Not only would it have cleared up the picture of Farak’s criminal behavior, it would have set a better distinction between Farak’s personal failings and the government’s systemic ones. It also would have carved out more time to talk about the people who were truly hurt by all of this; ya know, the victims.
Unfortunately, the sub-genre of true-crime stories, especially in the age of bingeable streaming content, exists not to inform and educate, but to entertain and keep you clicking “Next.” Ironically, that approach works against How to Fix a Drug Scandal here as the over-stretched narrative that’s designed to maintain tension actually makes the proceedings rather boring. That’s impressive in all the wrong ways.
This documentary tells a story of one chemist who got high on her own supply (provided on the up-and-up by law enforcement professionals), another chemist who was so desperate for attention that she created fictional email correspondence with her co-workers, and a statewide cover-up that extended to all levels of the criminal justice system with the intention of preserving tens of thousands of wrongful convictions just to save face. That story needs little embellishment; How to Fix a Drug Scandal somehow manages to both undercut the drama and overstay its welcome.
The true-life tale of Farak, Dookhan, and the Massachusetts government could make for a compelling, investigative-drama feature film, or a tighter, more focused documentary, but How to Fix a Drug Scandal is adrift somewhere between the two. Your four hours would be better served combing through related Wikipedia pages and editorials from Reason, The Washington Post, and Rolling Stone.
Rating: ★★ Fair