There is a pretty good argument for saying that you have seen the new Netflix drama series Painkiller before. Disney+ drama Dopesick covered the same ground and many of its beats are familiar. Both are fictionalised accounts of real and composite people and events at the heart of the opioid epidemic unleashed by the Sackler family’s company’s invention and relentless marketing – from the late 90s onwards – of a new drug called OxyContin. Both weave the story of one “typical” individual’s gradual addiction to their prescribed medication (in Dopesick a young woman hurt in a mining accident, in Painkiller a 30-something family man called Glen, played by Taylor Kitsch, who is injured during his work as a mechanic) through the bigger legal picture, presented through similar framing devices. Dopesick had Michael Keaton as a doctor testifying at a court hearing about OxyContin’s effect on him, his patients and their community. Painkiller has Uzo Aduba as Edie Flowers, an investigator with a US attorney’s office in Virginia – home to plenty of the kind of rural, working class and economically deprived communities that were the prime targets for the pushers of the new product. “People,” as Flowers puts it, “in pain and with no option but to get better.”
She is one of the first to spot the pattern of overprescription and abuse of the drug. Her explanation of the crisis to a law firm about to start a mass civil claim against Purdue Pharma – the company making OxyContin and owned by the Sacklers – roots us in the present and sparks flashbacks to pivotal points in the drug’s awful story.
In both shows, there is a venal drug rep who buys wholesale into the Sacklers’ push to sell the drug to as many people and places as possible, but whose mentee – in this case, Shannon Schaeffer (West Duchovny) – has a conscience and, after the initial glamour and excitement of the financial rewards Purdue made available to its sales team, increasingly unassailable doubts.
But – perhaps as a result of coming a little later than Dopesick, with more time for the evidence to have stacked up and for the effects of the epidemic to be further revealed – Painkiller is an angrier show. It sets out its stall at the beginning of every episode when people who have lost a loved one – most often their child – give grief-stricken, unflinching testimony to the victim’s years of suffering as an addict and to the family’s enduring loss. That you can see this new practice becoming rapidly devalued in the future by other, lesser programmes and their makers – making it into an easy play for audience sympathy rather than earning it with the drama itself – doesn’t, or shouldn’t, lessen the impact now.
Matthew Broderick is the much-trailed big name in the show, playing against type as the head of Purdue (and, once the money starts flowing in billions rather than the millions the Sacklers are used to, the effective head of the family) Richard Sackler. But it is an unrewarding part. There are no redeeming features shown for the man who is depicted taking what he learned from his mercenary uncle Arthur (who, brilliantly played by Clark Gregg, appears to him after his death to approve or give him ideas to open the cash spigot further) and applying it in such a ruthless manner. Unrelieved, cash-focused evil is an astonishing phenomenon when played out in real life, but watching its fleshly incarnation is inescapably a little dull. Aduba as Flowers is actually the centre of the show. All but burnt out by the time we first meet her, contemptuous of the latest round of lawyers who think they can make a difference, Aduba comes to enraged life as she describes the sins of the Sackler family for the firm in the present day. Flowers in flashback – as she digs deeper with her investigations – is riveting; tough, disbelieving, straightalking and alternating between determination and despair as the scale of the deception, corruption, addictions, bereavements and misery become apparent.
If in its anger and its desire to cover (especially legal) events as close up to the moment as it can, Painkiller fails to quite match Dopesick’s nuance, emotional resonance and tenderness towards its (deserving) characters in the process; in many ways it feels like a price worth paying. As anyone who has read the books Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe and Pain Killer by Barry Meier (used by the makers as sources and whose authors were consultants on the series) will know, the opioid crisis comprises everything that is wrong with healthcare and capitalism, and marks one of the greatest abuses of public trust there has ever been. And justice (“not payment”, says Flowers) is still to be done.
Painkiller is on Netflix