‘Painkiller’ Treads Familiar Territory in Recounting the Rise of OxyContin

A recent trend with streamers is the race to tell the same true crime story with fresh casts and differing stylistic approaches. Netflix’s “Painkiller” is the latest limited series to recount how the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma helped fuel the opioid crisis. It is an important history to be sure, especially since OxyContin has forever become associated with the perils of addiction via big pharma. The first curiosity in this particular take on the story is the series’ director. Peter Berg is mostly known for big, rumbling action thrillers packed with testosterone. Having him helm this series is the equivalent of Michael Bay adapting Nicholas Sparks. What results is a show where the casting is on point but the rhythm is a bit off. Familiar information rushes by in a jumble, while key characters work more like walking talking points.

The main character is a U.S. Attorney’s Office investigator named Edie Flowers (Uzo Aduba), who is testifying for a law firm targeting Purdue Pharma. She proceeds to narrate the saga of the rise of OxyContin, beginning with Richard Sackler (Matthew Broderick) who takes over the company and pushes for a product that will define its name, and rake in large profits. His logic is simple: Humans are driven by a combination of pain and pleasure. We hate pain and seek what feels good. Oxy promises to take away pain quickly and thus let you return to doing what you want. We also meet Glen Kryger (Taylor Kitsch), a small town mechanic who suffers an injury and is prescribed OxyContin by an overly cheerful doctor. Before long, he’s an addict. On the other side of the coin, there are the sales people for Purdue, such as Britt (Dina Shihabi) and Shannon (West Duchovny), who party hard at corporate events and push the drug on Middle America doctors. 

Many viewers will instantly recognize the narrative and even structure of “Painkiller” from the superior series “Dopesick,” which streamed on Hulu in 2021 and won several awards. That show found a great balance between its different narratives, characters and the overall delivery of an important, enraging message. Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster base their dramatization on a New Yorker piece by Patrick Radden Keefe and Barry Meier titled, “Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic.” This take feels like a frenetic copycat that, like Berg’s own action movies, lacks subtlety. Much of the dialogue can feel like in your face speechifying. After clearly seeing that OxyContin is addictive and that the Sacklers are creepy, greedy immoralists, scenes pause for Edie to clarify with long monologues that drug addiction is destructive, while comparing the opioid crisis to the 1980s crack epidemic. Other characters, like Britt is such a villain she proudly announces with bombastic monologues announcing, while twirling and looking evil, that wanting money doesn’t make you a bad person. And she’s going to make lots of it. West Duchovny, daughter of “X-Files” star David Duchovny and Téa Leoni, brings more subtly as the naïve rookie learning the ropes from Britt, but isn’t given anything meatier to work with. Taylor Kitsch does generate empathy, which is enhanced by a supporting performance by Carolina Bartczak as Glen’s wife, Lily. 

“Painkiller” could just be a curious case of arriving too late to a story simply done better by someone else. Matthew Broderick is a quietly menacing, cold-eyed Richard Sackler, but lacks the demented, overgrown child mood of Michael Stuhlbarg in “Dopesick.” This take also depends too much on overly done aging makeup, to an absurd degree with flashbacks to Sackler’s father, the patriarch who founded the company and looks like a waxing statue. Though there is a great scene where he walks into a hospital suffering a heart attack, telling the staff exactly what he has and what procedure must be done before he dies. Uzo Aduba has a strong presence as the investigator uncovering the shocking truth of Purdue Pharma’s practices, but much of her dialogue and scenes are reduced to standard TV movie material. Instead of turning into a more complex character, her Edie Flowers is there to explain what is already being shown. With endless scenes of addicts in the streets, forming lines and getting violent while looking for the next fix, the consequences of the opioid crisis are more than clear. Berg’s soundtrack choices are also beyond on the nose, from Iggy Pop’s “Candy” to Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy.” How many times can you make the metaphorical point that drugs are addictive like sugar?

What cannot be denied is that the story “Painkiller” tells is important. Like “Dopesick,” it highlights the infuriating truth of how the opioid crisis was more than avoidable, and is the result of corporate greed running wild. As unnerving and unsavory as the Sackler family is, these are the kind of people who run the world. On that level, viewers who missed the Hulu series will learn something from this one. Berg’s take is even dropping just as the Supreme Court has decided to block a deal that would have protected the Sacklers from opioid-related lawsuits. Originally, the family had tried to promise $6 billion for victims if they could be protected from further prosecution. Somehow we sense they might still get away with it. With its flaws, “Painkiller” captures a bit of that hard in its better moments. But overall we’ve been here and seen that. Some lessons are worth repeating. What shouldn’t be lost is a strong, lucid voice for the telling.

Painkiller” begins streaming Aug. 10 on Netflix.