This review was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the series being covered here wouldn’t exist.There is something surreal about watching Netflix’s miniseries Painkiller — and not in the bizarre way it intends. For those that have seen the story of how the greed of the Sackler family decimated thousands of lives through the introduction of OxyContin, previously told in Hulu’s Dopesick (a far more measured and comprehensive miniseries that came out a couple of years ago), there will be an unshakable sense of déjà vu. There are many of the same real-life figures and narrative developments, as well as an emphasis on how callous the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma were in rolling out this drug. What separates the two is the execution with the writing, direction, and general framing of this series all paling in comparison to the one already out in the world. The problem isn’t just that the perfunctory Painkiller is late to the game; even if it’d come before Dopesick, it would’ve been the lesser work. However, the timing doesn’t do Painkiller any favors in operating in the long shadow of an infinitely better series. It doesn’t add anything new where it should and only ends up focusing on all the wrong things that completely undercut the infinitesimally small hint of promise it had going for it.
Based in part on Patrick Radden Keefe‘s outstanding New Yorker article — worth reading more than this series is watching — each of the six episodes begins with greater compassion in a handful of minutes than the rest of the show does writ large as we hear from a real person who lost someone to OxyContin. From the very first episode, this then becomes jarring when we cut from a crushing confessional to the bizarro world of Richard Sackler himself. Played by a miscast Matthew Broderick, who never settles into the role, we observe him in older age as he awakens in his luxurious mansion while the sound of a smoke detector pierces through the silence. Cue Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” the first odd song selection of many that serves as the accompaniment to him wandering around in search of the source of the beeping that may not be real. As we come to understand over the series, he is a man haunted by literal ghosts. This is expressed in scenes that continually feel out of place, playing out as a hokey attempt at being edgy in the vein of a film like The Big Short. The issue is this does so without any of the needed cleverness to pull such a gambit off. The only thing Painkiller achieves is it provides a perfect example of how not to tell this story.
‘Painkiller’ Is Louder but Not Smarter
Though one shouldn’t belabor comparing the two series too much — there can be some value in seeing multiple takes on the same story, and you wouldn’t want one to copy the other — it is hard to overlook the glaring flaws in this hollow exploration of a very real problem. Much of this hollowness stems from the casting, with Broderick never coming close to how Michael Stuhlbarg brought a casual menace to his portrayal of Richard Sackler, but also the stiff structuring of the series is structured. Even when there is a performer more up to the challenge, like Uzo Aduba as Edie Flowers (who is a fictional amalgamation of many people trying to fight the Sacklers), there is a sense they’re having to fight the writing they’ve been given. Not only is it not good storytelling, with none of the texture we got from Dopesick as we saw the details of the various characters’ lives in far more depth, but it is an incomplete portrait of the reality of this epidemic. Hearing Aduba give scene after scene of narration, done under the guise of a legal strategy meeting the show keeps awkwardly cutting back to, is an unfailingly clunky way of providing the necessary information for the story. It’s all far too rote, as if we are being read a Wikipedia entry back to front, and the snarky tone the series tries to inject comes off as childish. Painkiller doesn’t seem to trust its audience to grapple with the grounded details of fighting against all-consuming greed.
Where Dopesick felt more in line with a film like the richly detailed Dark Waters in not skimping on the emotional experience of taking on callous corporations, this series is content to provide an overview that never offers any greater insight. Instead, there are recurring shots of Broderick walking with a dog where we get to see the canine’s balls. The case could be made that these scenes are meant to show how Sackler himself is an insecure manchild, but they’re not nearly as incisive as this show seems to think they are. As Dopesick delicately yet decisively revealed, the more terrifying prospect is that those in power are actually cruelly calculating and will do whatever they can to cling to the wealth that grants them their unchecked power. Even today, as seen in last year’s illuminating documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, justice is still in short supply. The small moments we get with someone like the troubled Glen Kryger (played by an underutilized Taylor Kitsch), whose life and family are forever impacted by the drug, are counteracted by all the more cartoonish elements throughout the rest of the series. The harrowing and resonant truths uncovered throughout Dopesick, while still imperfect in their own way, continually surpass anything that is being attempted here.
‘Painkiller’ Cuts Corners in Every Episode
More than anything, Painkiller feels unnecessarily slight in a fundamental sense. Characters are nearly all made superficial and there is a persistent lack of patience that sets the actors up for failure. By the time we get to the end, everything ties itself up a bit too neatly when the truth of this story is far more complicated. Where many of the final moments of Dopesick could be utterly devastating in how they fully captured this, Painkiller peters out after already having a lackluster foundation. There was so much more life felt in the previous series that is almost entirely absent here. Dopesick seemed like it truly cared about taking its time to show the full portrait of the destruction that was wrought on so many people, whereas this largely does not. While Painkiller was always likely to be the lesser of the two series, it’s now clear it doesn’t even come close to the better-told version that is out there already.
Not only did Dopesick beat Painkiller to the punch, but it also did so with far more emotional and thematic force behind it in the ways that truly matter. The last time we see Sackler essentially talking to himself here, the only relief is we no longer have to listen to his shtick.
The Big Picture
- Netflix’s miniseries Painkiller falls short in comparison to Hulu’s Dopesick across the board with poor writing, direction, and overall presentation.
- The series lacks depth, providing an incomplete portrait of the devastating OxyContin epidemic and focusing on all the wrong elements.
- The casting choices and stiff storytelling contribute to the hollowness of a series that goes for edginess as opposed to crafting genuine emotion only to succeed at neither.
Painkiller is on Netflix starting August 10.