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How did opioid crisis drama Painkiller make one of the most tragic stories of our time feel so implausible?

Netflix’s true-life drama has drawn widespread comparisons to the 2021 series ‘Dopesick’. This is an important story that bears repeating, argues Louis Chilton – but it needs to be handled better than this

Tuesday 15 August 2023 06:33 BST
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Corporate creep: Matthew Broderick as Richard Sackler in ‘Painkiller’
Corporate creep: Matthew Broderick as Richard Sackler in ‘Painkiller’ (Keri Anderson/Netflix)

At first, it seems like the problem with Painkiller is simply bad timing. Netflix’s six-part miniseries, which covers the scandalous opioid epidemic through the eyes of the victims, perpetrators and those that sought justice, comes less than two years after Dopesick, Hulu’s own miniseries that took a similarly holistic look at the crisis. Both series explore the wrongdoing of Purdue Pharma, the company’s nefarious president Richard Sackler, and the rise of the addictive painkiller OxyContin. It’s a big subject. Opioids are responsible for more than 600,000 deaths in the US and Canada since 1999; hundreds of thousands more are anticipated.

But no, the issue is not merely that Painkiller is too similar to Dopesick (although it is). Any tragedy that has this much of a seismic impact surely warrants scrutiny from different angles. If anything, TV has historically been far too unwilling to engage with the opioid crisis, an insidious and far-reaching epidemic that tore apart communities and was itself overlooked by American regulators, lawmakers and the media until it was far too late. For those in the US, shows like Painkiller can be a vital way of understanding a phenomenon that has already impacted whole swathes of the country; for those of us in the UK, where opioid use has not been as ravaging, it is an important window into a travesty to which many remain oblivious. It is a story that bears repeating. The greater problem is that Painkiller is so vastly inferior to Dopesick as to feel trivialising of such a vast scandal. It feels, in that familiar Netflix way, not like art but content: shallow and schematic and “bingeworthy”. Anyone who has seen Dopesick will surely walk away from Painkiller feeling underwhelmed and unenlightened. Anyone who hasn’t would be far better off watching the former instead.

As a point of comparison, let’s look at two narratively similar segments from both series: scenes in which Purdue Pharma boss Sackler convinces Purdue’s higher-ups of OxyContin’s potential. In Dopesick, this happens at the very beginning of the series (episode one, “First Bottle”), with Sackler (played here by Michael Stuhlbarg) delivering a monologue about pain. “For too long, the American medical community has been ignoring chronic pain, and this has created an epidemic of suffering,” he says. Later, he will make queasy promises of a “blockbuster drug”, but always, there is the mantra of “pain”: how to eradicate it, how to monetise it. The pushing of OxyContin is framed as, if not a moral imperative, then at least a solution to a very real medical problem. It doesn’t matter whether Stuhlbarg’s character, or anyone, believes a word he’s saying. His colleagues are sold.

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