[Review] ‘THE PHARMACIST’ a compelling docuseries about the new war on drugs from an unlikely hero

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

THE PHARMACIST

Rating: TV-MA, 215 minutes. 
Directors: Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason
Featuring: Dan Schneider

No matter the subject, the legwork that goes into making a documentary can be a daunting endeavor. But for filmmakers Julia Willoughby Nason and Jenner Furst and their titular subject, Dan Schneider, it turned out to be a veritable golden goose of information. 

It all started in late 2018 when they first heard of Dan’s story from Jed Lipinski, a partner on the project who was writing for the Times-Picayune. He had this big profile on Dan and thought his story would translate well as a documentary.

That documentary is Netflix’s docuseries THE PHARMACIST, and it’s tailored like an opened can of Pringles. Once you start, you can’t stop. 

Much to my surprise, I was unaware that it would be in this format when I saw it advertised. Considering the story’s scope and amount of archival material, though, it would be an editing nightmare to make it all work in a single documentary. Too much would be left out. Plus, Schneider’s story is so compelling with startling reveals and ramifications – for both himself and on a major scale – that it pushes beyond the dynamics of true crime, which THE PHARMACIST adhered to at the outset in 1999.

Dan Schneider is a mild-mannered pharmacist in Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish. He’s happily married and a loving father of two children. The Schneiders are like the creole version of National Lampoon’s Griswolds, from cross-country amusement park trips to decorating an oversized Christmas tree. Then, tragedy strikes when Dan’s son, Danny, is murdered. Danny was a crack addict and left the small parish to score drugs in New Orleans’ beggared Ninth Ward section.

Local police chalk it up as a drug deal gone wrong, and their investigation stagnates after a suspected shooter turns out not to be the culprit. Grief-stricken and unsatisfied, Dan launches his own investigation, forgoing personal safety as he looks for answers. His commitment leaps over the border of obsession as he talks to residents of the Ninth Ward trying to find someone who knew his son or may have seen something the night he was murdered. As added insurance, Dan recorded all his phone calls and voiced his thoughts into his recorder as if he were taking confession.

A still from ‘THE PHARMACIST.’ Courtesy of Netflix.

Dan’s odyssey in catching his son’s killer is a documentary in itself, but that’s just the first episode. The second installment is where THE PHARMACIST really takes shape as the murder of Danny Jr. is merely a prelude to Dan starting a new investigation into a systemic problem that he was culpable: dispensing opioids. Noticing the frequency and ages of those wanting Oxycontin – and baffled why a doctor would prescribe a high amount (or at all) as a treatment for certain conditions – Dan grabs his audio gear and starts sleuthing again.

Seeing what drugs did to his son, Dan becomes a sort-of Drug Enforcement Avenger as he fastidiously works to do what he couldn’t do for Danny Jr. and save others before they become just another drug incident report. The narrative jettisons us from behind the pharmacy counter as it explores medical malfeasance, in-action by law enforcement, and the corruption of Big Pharma.    

The amount of investigative work Dan does is remarkable. He makes the law enforcement guys look like a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies. And his adherence to dating and cataloging phone conversations and journal scribbles in cardboard storage boxes would be a godsend for paralegals during Discovery.    

As someone who finds our government’s war on drugs to be a total crock in stopping illegal drug use – and is well aware of the legally prescribed opioid drug crisis that exists (thanks to Sam Quinones’s novel DREAMLAND and Beth Macy’s DOPESICK) – THE PHARMACIST serves as yet another wake-up call to a national epidemic that has claimed more than 400,000 lives since Schneider connected the dots in how the drug game worked in his area.

THE PHARMACIST is more than just another Netflix documentary to appease true-crime fans. It’s a powerful story about a bereaved father who becomes a man of action. Nason and Jenner Furst’s docuseries is a vivid account of a widespread problem that still lingers. The prevalence of opioids in the US, the monetary greed, and the collateral effect that occurs when trying to stop it (the drug that replaces opioids is both more lethal and illegal) feel like an everlasting battle without a conclusion. And it will be part of the zeitgeist for the foreseeable.                 

Grade: A-

THE PHARMACIST is now streaming on Netflix.

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