Life & Culture

Painkiller review: This story has been told before

Netflix series telling the tale of how the opioid OxyContin wrought devastation upon America hits the wrong notes


Painkiller. Matthew Broderick as Richard Sackler in episode 101 of Painkiller. Cr. Keri Anderson/Netflix © 2023

Netflix | ★★★✩✩

The UK doesn’t adopt every trend from across the pond and the drug OxyContin, predicted to have killed nearly half a million Americans, isn't, thank heavens, one of them.

Instead, we have two TV drama series about the opioid epidemic unleashed by the Sackler family after it created and then marketed the drug: 2021’s Dopesick on Disney+, and now Painkiller on Netflix.

There’s no real need to watch the latter if you’ve seen the former, as the Netflix number is a bit of a mess.

Matthew Broderick who plays the show’s villain Dr Richard Sackler, is the big name and his character has no redeeming features. He is an exercise in relentless self-service.

In 2012, there were eight opioid for every ten Americans, and Painkiller shows how deliberately misrepresenting the drug’s addictive properties and kickbacks for those doctors who prescribed it, contributed to its exponential growth. As did the recruitment of a beautiful young saleswoman to market it.

None of this escapes the notice of dedicated government employee Miss Flowers, played by Uza Aduba, who is the one of the first to notice the pattern of abuse and who makes it her business to expose and bring down the Sackler family’s Purdue Pharma, the company that sells the drug.

Aduba does a great job of portraying her as a real, warts ‘n all person, but making a rude loner geek the hero of your story is a bold move, As a character, she is difficult to warm to.

Perhaps we’re meant to emote with American family man Glen, played by Taylor Kitsch, who is injured in his work as car mechanic and then prescribed the drug with terrible consequences, his story representative of the many thousands of others whose lives OxyContin destroyed.

“People,” as Flowers puts it, “in pain and with no option but to get better.”

The problem is that while the programme is well-acted and, as you would expect, well-directed by Hollywood director Peter Berg, the storylines are all shadows of things we’ve seen in The Wolf of Wall Street and Traffic.

In fact, if you’ve ever watched anything involving drugs, addiction, greed and corruption, you’ve seen Painkillers before — and done better.

The programme’s structure doesn’t help. There are many strands to this story and here they are shown in various orders and with flashbacks, which fractures the time line. It all feels a bit tangled.

And then there’s the question of tone. The programme’s moments of surrealism and comedy don’t sit well with the anger the viewer feels at how this crime occurred.

The Sackler family’s Jewish background is never mentioned, but it feels important to state how very far they strayed from concept of tikkun olam.

Even after settling civil claims by paying US$225 million, they wound up with an estimated $12 billion dollar fortune. There is every reason to reveal their abuse of public trust and the real cost of for-profit healthcare.

Perhaps this is what inspired co-show runner and son of an Orthodox rabbi Micah Fitzerman-Blue to tell the story. What a shame it isn’t told better.

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