TV Pick of the Week: Painkiller - review by Yvette Huddleston
The opioid addiction crisis in the United States has been covered in several documentaries, as well as in the 2021 Disney+ dramatization Dopesick. This new six-part drama from Netflix, focussing on the legal battle surrounding the crisis and some of the human stories, is mesmerising and profoundly disturbing in equal measure.
It is the venality of the main players in this terrible situation, ongoing since the late 1990s, that is so shocking. The crisis has disrupted, or ended, the lives of many ordinary Americans who have become addicted to prescription drugs. The multi-millionaire Sackler family and the pharmaceutical company they own, Purdue Pharma, are at the centre of this crisis.
Purdue developed and ruthlessly marketed OxyContin, hailed as a miracle new pain killer. It was, in fact, highly addictive and much stronger than other pain medication, which eventually, inevitably, led to the addiction epidemic. As early as 2000 there was concern about the effects of the drug but its manufacture and distribution continued.
Matthew Broderick gives a chilling performance, playing against type, as Richard Sackler the head of the family and the firm. Driven, ambitious and without an ounce of empathy, Sackler is seemingly motivated by only one thing – greed. It is unedifying to watch how he deliberately, knowingly asks researchers at the Purdue labs to develop the high-strength drug which contains significant levels of morphine, then sets about hard-selling it through the profit-driven US healthcare system.
In the opening episode we meet Edie Flowers (Uzo Aduba), an investigator with the US attorney’s office in Virginia who has been called in by a Washington law firm who are filing a mass civil claim against Purdue Pharma. Flowers was the first to notice the overprescription of OxyContin and has by this time already spent years trying to get justice for those affected by the drug. She is weary and initially uncooperative – ‘how is this any different’? – until they reveal they have deposed Richard Sackler. Her testimony to them provides flashbacks to her early investigations and key moments in the drug’s history.
In a parallel storyline we are introduced to Glen Kryger (Taylor Kitsch), a thirtysomething husband and father, running his own business as a mechanic who is injured in a work accident. His surgery goes well but he is told he will need long-term pain medication and is prescribed OxyContin. His story, like that of so many others, is a sad one.