Adam McKay’s name is nowhere to be found in the credits for Painkiller, for the very good reason that he had nothing to do with it.
Yet it’s hard not to see his influence all over the Netflix miniseries. It’s there in the restless pacing, in the heavy-handed metaphors, in the choice to have the entire thing narrated by a character who all but reaches out from the screen to grab the audience by the lapels and shake them into action.
The Bottom Line
An important story buried in bells and whistles.
Airdate: Thursday, Aug. 10 (Netflix)
Cast: Uzo Aduba, Matthew Broderick, Taylor Kitsch, West Duchovny, Dina Shihabi, Clark Gregg, John Rothman
Creators: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster
And it’s there, too, in the accompanying limitations. Painkiller, created by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harper, presumably intends for all that flash to draw attention to its weighty central narrative about the launch of OxyContin and the ensuing opioid epidemic. But it overshoots that mark. The style is so ostentatious it distracts from the substance, even as it means to hammer home how important that substance really is.
Of Painkiller‘s many flourishes, the best is its first. Each of the six hourlong episodes (all directed by Peter Berg) opens with a non-actor reading a disclaimer about the series being based on real events but incorporating dramatized elements. “But what is not fictionalized is my story,” they add, sharing memories and photos of loved ones killed by opioids. As a reminder that the consequences of this tale are real and devastating, it’s as subtle as a gut punch, and about as effective.
It’s also probably necessary, because elsewhere, Painkiller seems torn between the urge to edify and the desire to entertain. Its facts, pulled from Barry Meier’s book Pain Killer and Patrick Radden Keefe’s New Yorker article “The Family That Built the Empire of Pain,” are plainly harrowing and infuriating. In the 1990s, Richard Sackler (Matthew Broderick) unveils his new miracle medication, OxyContin. The pill’s blockbuster success turns around the fortunes of Purdue Pharma, the company he’d inherited from his late uncle Arthur (Clark Gregg), and makes the Sacklers richer than God. But it comes at the cost of the current drug crisis, after countless patients assured by their doctors that OxyContin is abuse-resistant find themselves hooked anyway on what one frustrated sheriff calls “heroin wrapped up in a pretty little pill.”
Perhaps wary of boring or depressing the audience with those realities, Painkiller buries them under an avalanche of fantasy sequences, rapid-fire montages, a jangly editing style and familiar, obvious needle drops (“Psycho Killer” to indicate evil, “I Put a Spell on You” to denote addiction). Ambitiously, it also presents an array of different perspectives to provide a more complete picture of the whole OxyContin debacle. Shannon (West Duchovny) is a naive new sales rep under the tutelage of Britt (Dina Shihabi), a girl-boss Jordan Belfort in skintight minis; Glen (Tyler Kitsch) is a wholesome family man whose life spirals after he’s prescribed the drug for a back injury. Despite a sensitive performance by Kitsch and a thrillingly over-the-top one by Shihabi, none of them transcend the generic composites they’re written as.
The most prominent of Painkiller’s flat but functional fictional characters is Edie (Uzo Aduba), a federal investigator who’d been part of an early-2000s attempt to sue Purdue Pharma. In 2019, she’s brought in to aid in another attempt at a lawsuit, and it’s her interview that frames the biography of the Sackler clan, the debut of OxyContin and the onset of the opioid crisis. Aduba radiates such righteous rage and palpable sorrow — and Broderick such off-putting coldness — that Richard could never be mistaken as anything but a villain. Asked for a “Batman-like origin story” to account for Richard’s actions, Edie spits back, “I don’t give a shit about the motivation. It doesn’t matter because he did it.” Painkiller does care about his intentions, though, or at least his psychology, to the extent that we’re treated to long imaginary conversations between Richard and his late uncle.
That so much of what Purdue Pharma did was not technically illegal, as Edie points out, makes understanding the hows and whys that much more vital. Painkiller spells out how the Sacklers exploited the cracks in our existing system, like regulatory offices too under-resourced to properly investigate the applications thrown at them. We learn how a phrase as unassuming as “is believed” can turn insidious when applied to a product as dangerous as OxyContin: The drug is promoted as safe on the basis that its coating “is believed” to reduce the risk of abuse, though as Edie points out, who this is believed by goes unstated. We witness Purdue’s darkly brilliant marketing strategy at work, as armies of photogenic reps charm corruptible doctors into prescribing higher and higher doses.
It’s all quite horrifying to see played out so starkly, even if you were aware of much of the facts from other coverage of OxyContin and its fallout. (Like, say, Hulu’s Dopesick, which shares Painkiller‘s sprawling, time-hopping structure but takes a more somber, and ultimately more persuasive, approach.) Given the subject’s salience, it’s difficult to totally fault the show’s creators for deploying every tool at their disposal to get an audience to sit up and take notice — and to ensure they get the picture even if they don’t.
So Painkiller never settles for merely showing Richard dream up a drug we know will have catastrophic consequences when it can also have Edie announce the moment as “the birth of a bad idea,” and then punctuate that statement with a montage of atom bombs going off. It’s not content to leave Edie describing a pill as Richard’s “sacrament” when it can show us Richard in a clerical collar, handing out golden capsules like they’re Communion wafers. It takes no chances with an audience’s distracted focus — a scene of Glen soiling himself is replayed minutes later within the same installment as a flashback, just in case anyone missed it the first time.
If a few bells and whistles can draw attention to a worthy cause, however, too many can overwhelm it. The experience of watching Painkiller is an exhausting one, and not (just) because it’s so upsetting to see what the Sacklers are able to get away with. The show’s emphasis on dazzle comes at the expense of believable characters or nuanced analysis or emotional resonance; one wonders how much more the show might have been had it not spent so much of its time and energy simply trying to convince everyone to look over here in the first place. That Painkiller‘s core narrative is a history worth knowing and a message worth hearing is not in doubt. But it’s one encased in so many layers of candy coating, it ultimately feels like more trouble than it’s worth to cut through to its heart.