The Pitch: When OxyContin was first released to the world in 1996, it was promoted as a miracle drug. Unfortunately, the miracle quickly became hell for patients prescribed the painkiller. What led to its increased popularity around the world? It wasn’t just its incredibly addictive nature, but the relentless efforts of parent company Purdue Pharma that made the drug a best-seller, while coating the hands of the Sackler family with blood.
Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One: So in 1998, Hollywood gave the world not one but two movies about a giant asteroid hitting the planet Earth. At the time, it did feel silly (the same way it felt silly to have Antz and A Bug’s Life premiere that same year, or have Dante’s Peak and Volcano premiere within a few months of each other in 1997). Yet Deep Impact and Armageddon stand out today for how very differently they approach depicting this specific disaster — the former taking a more grounded approach, while the latter had Bruce Willis swaggering around with a whole bunch of nukes.
There’s nothing wrong with two projects exploring the same material, is the point — as long as the two projects each have something unique to say about the subject matter. Unfortunately for the new Netflix series Painkiller, it’s arriving on our screens less than two years since the premiere of the Hulu limited series Dopesick, which won multiple Emmys for its brutal look at how the opioid crisis ruined lives in the name of corporate greed.
Painkiller not only has very little to add to the conversation, but the ways in which it’s different from Dopesick only make it look worse. Which A-lister gives the better performance as Richard Sackler, Michael Stuhlbarg or Matthew Broderick? Is Will Poulter’s journey as a conflicted sales rep for Purdue Pharma in Dopesick more compelling than West Duchovny’s journey as a conflicted sales rep for Purdue Pharma in Painkiller? There’s something almost grotesque about comparing the two shows on this level; yet in their similarities, it’s hard to escape it.
There Is No Pain, You Are Receding: Even without Dopesick, Painkiller would still be a too-familiar take on this material, setting up tropes of true life tragedy stories with the kind of subtlety an after-school special can only aspire to. We’ve got The Bad Businessman: Matthew Broderick taking on Richard Sackler with a determination to make him look as bad as possible. Then there’s The Good Lawyer: Uzo Aduba playing the fictional Edie with a focused gruffness. And don’t forget The Good Person Whose Life Is Destroyed by Addiction, in this case auto shop owner Taylor Kitsch.
This all comes packaged in six episodes that aim to cover the full spectrum of corruption that led to OxyContin’s violent spread — but end up feeling incomplete and unsubstantial. (Dopesick took eight episodes to cover the same material, for what it’s worth.) And that’s not even the most disappointing factor. Every episode is directed by Peter Berg, a well-established director with a proven ability to work in multiple genres. In addition to directing features like Friday Night Lights, Hancock, and Lone Survivor, Berg also directed the pilots for The Leftovers, the Friday Night Lights series, and the HBO Dwayne Johnson comedy Ballers.
Berg’s got a serious resume and a proven track record, which makes it so baffling that he would choose to wholesale mimic… well, this critic’s first instinct was to compare it to the editing of a Fyre Fest documentary, but Adam McKay’s recent issue-focused film work is probably the more apt comparison. It’s not just fast editing with lots of reference clips — there are also multiple fantasy sequences revolving around Richard Sackler’s imagined conversations with the deceased Arthur Sackler, Sr. (Clark Gregg). This allows creators Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster to externalize Richard Sackler’s internal thoughts to a degree — however, it adds nothing to the story, beyond reminding the audience just what a ruthless and manipulative man this is.
The Verdict: If there’s one reason to watch (and not hate-watch) Painkiller, it’s Uzo Aduba’s performance — her character is sharply defined almost immediately, a woman who’s been hurt by the world and is determined to never let it happen again, to herself or anyone else. Broderick, meanwhile, gets occasionally lost in the weeds of Berg’s more fanciful auteur moments, but does feel committed to the role. It’s at least possible to watch him without feeling like you’re just looking at Ferris Bueller in a hairpiece, and feels different enough from Stuhlbarg’s Sackler take to be of note.
That’s not the biggest difference between the two series, though. While Painkiller leans much more on fictionalized versions of key figures from these events, every episode does begin with reality slapping you in the face. This comes in the form of a real, and grieving, person talking directly to the camera about how the events of the show have been “fictionalized for dramatic purposes” (a standard disclaimer, for projects like these), but the speaker really did lose a loved one to opioid addiction.
It’s manipulative as hell, but does have an impact in the moment, because your heart can’t help but break for this person’s pain. And it sells the emotional truth of the heartbreak Oxy gave a nation.
Where to Watch: Painkiller is streaming now on Netflix.