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Netflix limited series Painkiller takes on the opioid crisis and will make you so angry

Published Aug 8th, 2023 2:28PM EDT
Painkiller on Netflix
Image: Keri Anderson/Netflix

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Netflix’s new series Painkiller certainly has its work cut out for it. The ambition of this 6-episode drama, coming later this week, is basically to reveal how the company behind the drug OxyContin became one of the biggest villains of Big Pharma. As such, that company’s billionaire chairman Richard Sackler, played here by Matthew Broderick, will absolutely make your skin crawl — as will the company’s Barbie doll drug reps, with their knack for transforming supposedly professional physicians into often lecherous conduits for getting Oxy into the hands of as many users as possible.

The big hurdle confronting Painkiller, though, is not that the show has to convince you to stick with a real-life story that’s designed to be highly upsetting. It’s that this is also not the first time this story has been dramatized. Hulu’s Dopesick, for example, was a near-flawless drama about the very same series of events that picked up 14 Emmy nominations — and, in my opinion, set the standard for how this story about the opioid crisis should be told.

“We will never have to worry about money again”

If, meanwhile, you know absolutely nothing about Purdue Pharma or the Sackler family behind it that made billions from co-opting the healthcare industry into prescribing and distributing OxyContin, don’t worry: You’ll catch up fast. The team behind Painkiller includes veterans of NBC’s Friday Night Lights as well as, ironically, Netflix’s Narcos — which is to say, they know how to make gripping television.

And, lest anyone isn’t clear about what’s at stake, Broderick’s Sackler has a particularly chilling moment at one point in the series, when he explains how the entirety of human behavior is comprised of just two motivations. As he puts it, everyone is always either running from pain or running toward pleasure. “If we place ourselves right there between pain and pleasure,” Sackler confidently declares in Painkiller, “we will never have to worry about money again.”

Painkiller on Netflix
Matthew Broderick as Richard Sackler in episode 105 of “Painkiller.” Image source: Keri Anderson/Netflix
Painkiller on Netflix
Dina Shihabi as Britt Hufford in episode 104 of “Painkiller.” Image source: Keri Anderson/Netflix

Painkiller release date, trailer, and more

Painkiller will debut as a limited series on Netflix on Aug. 10. The source material that underpins the series comes from Patrick Radden Keefe’s New Yorker piece “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain,” as well as Barry Meier’s book “Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic” (both Patrick and Barry also consulted on the series).

In addition to Broderick’s Sackler, Uzo Aduba plays Edie Flowers — an investigator for the US Attorney’s office who launches a probe of Purdue Pharma’s new drug, OxyContin. The other key figures include Purdue sales reps Shannon Schaeffer and Britt Hufford (played by West Duchovny and Dina Shihabi, respectively), and Glen Kryger (Taylor Kitsch), a family man who suffers a terrible injury and needs the relief promised by OxyContin.

“The opioid epidemic for me was this horrible contradictory idea,” executive producer Eric Newman said in a promotional interview with Netflix.

“These things were killing just as many people and wrecking just as many lives, and the players were just as nefarious. But because it was legal, it was just a healthcare crisis. Unlike drug traffickers, who are never dishonest about who they are and what they do, this group pretends to care about the welfare of human beings. They’re doctors. I think it’s actually the greatest betrayal of public trust in history.”

Painkiller on Netflix
John Rothman as Mortimer Sackler, Matthew Broderick as Richard Sackler, and Sam Anderson as Raymond Sackler in episode 103 of “Painkiller.” Image source: Keri Anderson/Netflix
Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.