'Painkiller’ Review: Netflix Series Fails To Capture Opioid Crisis

‘Painkiller’ Review: Netflix Series Fails To Capture Opioid Crisis

While Fentanyl now dominates headlines as the drug wreaking havoc on our society, back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was OxyContin that led conversations about the impact of overprescribed opioids. Formulated, produced, marketed and sold by the family-run organization Purdue Pharma, Oxy quickly grew in popularity because it was marketed as a safe, “non-addictive” opioid. Oxy was then pushed onto patients through respected healthcare professionals who were misinformed about the drug and profited greatly from prescribing it.

Barry Meier’s book “Pain Killer” and the New Yorker article “The Family That Built the Empire of Pain,” by Patrick Radden Keefe, documented the rise of OxyContin and the lasting impact it had here in the U.S., and both serve as the foundation for Netflix’s new limited series “Painkiller.” Directed by Peter Berg, the show is a fictionalized account of the opioid epidemic as told from the perspective of the survivors, victims, villains and those who stand somewhere in between.

The series begins with a seething Edie Flowers (Uzo Aduba), a former investigator working for Virginia’s U.S. attorney’s office. Edie travels to Washington D.C. to recount her time in the field, discovering Oxy and eventually trying to make Perdue pay for the irreparable harm the company caused countless people. Though Edie is the narrator, other central figures flesh out the story. There is Glen Kryger (Taylor Kitsch), a car mechanic who is harmed on the job and later prescribed Oxy during his recovery. Shannon Schaeffer (West Duchovny) is a recent college grad recruited by Perdue, and eventually becomes a key sales rep. Then there is Richard Sackler (Matthew Broderick), the Perdue patriarch responsible for creating and marketing the designer narcotic.

The issue with “Painkiller” is that none of these storylines are sharp or new. Due to years of investigations and research, much more is now known concerning the opioid crisis. There have been varied exposes, films and television shows examining it, including Netflix’s intriguing docuseries “The Pharmacist.”

And the Hulu limited series about the rise of Oxy, “Dopesick,” already traveled down this path — and did it exponentially better. In “Dopesick,” Michael Keaton and Kaitlyn Dever’s performances gave the series and empathetic and compelling quality that is lacking in lacking in “Painkiller,” which seems to focus too much on the Sacklers and Perdue.

Unfortunately, “Painkiller” fails to trust that its audience has even a slither of context concerning the subject. Instead, it exhaustively focuses on every little detail, enabling most scenes to dissolve into melodrama.

It’s 1998 in Hillsville, Va., where Edie first confronts a doctor regarding medical malpractice. From there, “Painkiller” unfolds predictably. Edie investigates corrupt doctors, which alerts her to Oxy’s existence. As she becomes increasingly concerned with the medication, Edie conveniently witnesses a pharmacy robbery, crosses paths with Shannon at a doctor’s office and even comes face-to-face with Richard Sackler himself. Elsewhere, Glen returns to work after an initial Oxy prescription gets him back on his feet. Shannon is mentored by Britt Hufford (Dina Shihabi), a Perdue sales rep already at the top of her game, who arms her with disinformation and tips to entice doctors. Meanwhile, Sackler sits in his monstrosity of a home, reveling in all of his success. Despite their talents, a cumbersome script with all of its subjects and plot points is too much for the performers to overcome.

Broderick’s Sackler is a deranged figure who aspires to be a “Wolf of Wall Street” type but gives corny dad energy. Tonally, the show has no clue what it’s doing. Off-putting soundtrack choices like “I Want Candy” and two agonizingly long scenes centering on Glen’s withdrawal from Oxy feel overwrought and do the series no favors. Another puzzling choice is Richard Sackler’s continued dialogue with his deceased uncle Dr. Arthur Sackler (Clark Gregg), his mentor and the originator of the pharmaceutical dynasty. Arthur comes to life, again and again, springing forth from Richard’s mind to prompt, scold or even slap him for his choices surrounding Oxy and the business. However, instead of analyzing Richard’s psyche, these choices allow both figures to become caricatures driven solely by greed and immorality. Moreover, by repeatedly returning to Richard in the series, Perdue and the Sacklers become central figures in this story when the onus should have been on the victims, whose lives and families they helped obliterate.

While much of “Painkiller” is shockingly contrived, it does provide a sharp examination of the marketing machine behind OxyContin. Perdue understood the human obsession with pain versus pleasure. They transformed an opioid with a nearly identical chemical makeup to heroin into a friendly-looking stuffed plushie. As a result, regular people quickly became pill mill doctors, drug dealers and substance abusers.

Each episode of “Painkiller” begins powerfully by highlighting real people who lost a child to OxyContin. It’s a somber reminder of the genuine cost of Oxy while underlining America’s failed “War on Drugs.” The fictionalized tale then takes over as the clips of real-life people clutching photos of their deceased loved ones fade.

Still, “Painkiller” crumbles because it doesn’t know what it wants to be. It’s a story of a family ripped apart by addiction and another’s fixation with legacy. The series assesses culpability and how the government and its bureaucracies, like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), allowed Perdue and Oxy to fester – having no accountability for so long. “Painkiller” covers a lot of ground. Yet, so many perspectives jumble the subject matter, allowing it to lose its grit.

Forty years after crack cocaine decimated entire communities, specifically people of color, and more than 20 years since the opioid crisis began thundering through middle America, the true villains of these massacres still aren’t being called to task. The perpetrators are known, but if there is no genuine interest in examining them in a new way, probing society’s collective preoccupation with numbing the pain or bringing some form of justice to the victims and survivors, it all feels hollow.

“Painkiller” premieres Aug. 10 on Netflix.