Each episode of Netflix’s new miniseries, Painkiller, starts in a unique way. The standard disclaimer — about the show being based on real events with certain characters and dialogues being fictionalised for dramatic purposes — is read out by a person directly facing the camera. The individual then goes on to reveal that beyond these fictional tendencies, there are reverberations of the loss caused by the opioid crisis. A mother breaks down talking about her son she lost to addiction, and another couple recalls the things they miss about their daughter. Some are able to make it through the sequence in one go, others take a pause to collect themselves. It is a haunting way to start off a show but fits in perfectly with the subject matter. However, that is unfortunately where the connection ends. Shifting tones significantly, Painkiller relies heavily on dramatisations and heightened emotional sequences, rendering it more of an angry gesture aimed at Purdue Pharma than a fictional account of a horrific truth.
Across six episodes, the show follows the sequence of events that led to the devasting epidemic of opioid addiction — from the inception of the idea of the OxyContin pill in Richard Sackler’s brain to the nefarious complicity of the state in allowing its distribution, an aggressive sales campaign, and how many American families fell apart like a house of cards as addiction ravaged the community. These facts are relayed chronologically by Edie Flowers (Uzo Aduba), a brisk, determined investigator at a U.S. Attorney’s office. As Edie, Uzo Aduba brings to life a hardened character that does not tire of repeatedly pushing against the wall of American Big Pharma. To another group of U.S. investigators who are looking to pin down the Sackler family, Edie narrates her own experience of slowly building a case against Purdue Pharma.
The American media has approached the opioid crisis, Purdue Pharma, and the viciousness of the Sacklers, from plenty of angles. There is no dearth of fictional or non-fictional accounts in text, visual or sonic form, wherein Americans have looked inward into the lapses that enabled these events. The show itself has been adapted from a 2017 New Yorker article and a 2018 book. Therefore, Painkiller, in 2023, will be judged against these markers to see if it can in any way add to discourse. Sadly, it makes very few attempts in its pursuit to provide a different perspective.
Creator: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster
Cast: Uzo Aduba, Matthew Broderick, Taylor Kitsch, West Duchovny, Sam Anderson, and others
Runtime: 45-50 minutes
Storyline: Investigators attempt to chase down the causes behind the opioid crisis wreaking havoc on American families
In Edie’s narration of the events, she paints a picture of the Sackler family, specifically of Richard Sackler (Matthew Broderick). The writers, in several instances, provide Aduba’s character with dialogues that seem more fit in a documentary script. As she tears into his conniving brain, his willful ignorance of OxyContin’s harm, it appears that the show would like to approach this topic by sniffing at where this rot started — the Sackler family.
Richard is shown engaging in elaborate routines throughout his day, which include repeated conversations with his dead uncle and pioneer of Purdue Pharma, Arthur Sackler. The visions of his dead uncle engage him in questions about the future of the company and the legacy of the family. While this is taking place, Edie’s accounts of how the addiction spread across America are told in two separate tales: a young sales representative starting out at Purdue Pharma begins to feel uneasy with her actions, and a young family is ruined after one of them gets prescribed OxyContin. The show constantly switches one view for the other, as we slowly see Richard’s and Purdue’s profits, and America’s sickness grow. While it is not particularly an innovative attempt at the case at hand, it also doesn’t benefit from the subject matter being so needlessly dramatised. As the investigation into OxyContin gains steam, Richard tries to shift the blame on those abusing the drug and tells his team to “hammer the abusers” in the court of public perception. This scene is also accompanied by cutaway shots of Richard and Arthur with literal hammers which they swing at the camera. It is these narrative choices that sink an otherwise average series. While Aduba is able to mine some gravitas from the material at hand, Matthew Broderick’s performance suffers as the writing reduces Richard to a very flat villain.
Coming on the heels of the critically successful Dopesick, Netflix’s Painkiller will inevitably invite comparison as it follows a near-identical timeline and set of characters. But, despite having it at its disposal, Painkiller lacks the patience to sit with the pain it is examining. This is especially jarring when compared to its disclaimer shots that allow everyone to overcome their pain and tell their story.
Painkiller is currently streaming on Netflix
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