What ‘Painkiller’ Omits About the Opioid Crisis

Matthew Broderick in 'Painkiller.' (Photo: Courtesy of Netflix)

A politician’s job is easiest when there’s a recognizable villain, and there’s nothing like hauling execs in front of a bipartisan panel and racking up the clips for cable news. Painkiller, a new six-episode limited series on Netflix, is the streaming equivalent of a congressional dressing-down: long on pathos, and short on nuance. 

The series hammers home the misdeeds of Purdue Pharmaceuticals, as well as the heartache and societal breakdown caused by its onetime “wonder drug,” OxyContin. But like a heavy-handed made-for-TV hearing, Painkiller lays it on too thick. A naïve viewer may come away from the show thinking that the opioid epidemic could be solely attributed to corporate greed, which does little to explore policies that could move the needle on our persistent drug crisis.

Though Painkiller efficiently depicts the main beats of OxyContin’s story—Purdue’s headlong push past traditional guardrails around opioids, aggressive marketing, and power politics—much of the on-screen drama oversimplifies its main characters. A fictional U.S. attorney played by Uzo Aduba, for example, largely serves as a mouthpiece for the showrunners’ anger while delivering monologues of exposition. Former Friday Night Lights star Taylor Kitsch’s character may as well be a stock character from a pickup truck commercial who transforms into an addict writhing on a motel floor. And corporate head Richard Sackler, played by Matthew Broderick, is played as a vacant avatar of avarice. Though his relationship to legacy, family, and reputation could have made for a nuanced story, Painkiller seems content to suggest the pursuit of the almighty dollar (and the wings of museums and college buildings it could purchase) drove him and other Purdue executives to delude others about OxyContin’s addictive potential. 

But Purdue Pharma was far from the only 1990s institution sanguine about the potential of opiate-derived prescription medications. Companies like Johnson & Johnson, patient advocacy groups, and the Veterans Health Administration signaled an industry-wide shift to treat pain as the “fifth vital sign” and to convince prescribing physicians to get over their musty old “opiophobia.” Freedom from pain, proclaimed the World Health Organization in 2004, should be a universal human right.

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