A First Look at Netflix’s Painkiller
Leave it to Netflix to put a compelling new spin on an old American trope. Then again, when you assemble a team that includes veterans of standouts such as Friday Night Lights and Narcos, the storytelling is bound to be compelling. Add the likes of Matthew Broderick, Taylor Kitsch and Uzo Aduba in front of the cameras and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster and Alex Gibney behind it, and, well, compelling becomes a given. Since Netflix’s Painkiller has all that and more, you can bet we’re in for one helluva narrative treat.
The through-line is as solid as it gets. On one extreme there’s Purdue Pharma’s Richard Sackler (Broderick), whose OxyContin marketing pretty much single-handedly started the opioid crisis. On the other there’s Glen Kryger (Kitsch), a car mechanic brought low by opioids. In between there’s Edie Flowers, (Aduba), a crackerjack lawyer looking to bring down the cause of the crisis. Backed by the might of the US Attorney’s office and built for absolute justice, Flowers has more than a fighting chance to do just that.
Netflix’s Painkiller is based on two solid sources: Patrick Radden Keefe’s “The Family That Build an Empire of Pain,” which began as an article in The New Yorker and then became the book Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty (Doubleday), and Barry Meier’s Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic (Random House), which is the result of some prize-winning reporting for The New York Times. In other words, the series not only gets the fact straight, but it gets deep to the heart of what matters most. Whether you call it mass murder or good business depends on which side of the ledger you live.
Here’s how Tudum’s Tara Bitran summed-up the upcoming six-parter:
“The series explores some of the origins and aftermath of the opioid crisis in the US and offers an examination of crime, accountability and the systems that have repeatedly failed hundreds of thousands of Americans.”
And here’s what we culled from the rest of the pre-run hype.
Peter Berg Directs Netflix’s Painkiller
Friday Night Lights’ Peter Berg directs all six episodes of Netflix’s Painkiller, and he does so with the same gusto he’s brought to the highly-acclaimed film and series, as well as such movies as Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day.
“My goal was to capture the DNA that lives deep in the soul of the opioid crisis — a very dense and complex tragedy fueled by greed, corruption, human fragility and more greed,” Berg told Netflix’s Tudum.
“For Purdue, the business was pain and business was booming…”
Berg also serves as one of three Executive Producers, with Narcos’ Eric Newman and Alex Gibney rounding out the trio. Healing Properties previously cited Gibney’s similarly-skewed The Crime of the Century when the doc debuted on HBO a few hundred moons ago. We were highly-impressed then; there’s no reason to believe we won’t be equally impressed when Painkiller screens this summer. Then again, what else to expect from a creator who has blessed us with the likes of Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room?
Previous Crisis Culture Citings
That wasn’t HP’s first time tackling the Sacklers, of course. In fact, we plugged Keefe’s Empire of Pain when it first racked, as well as Beth Macy‘s Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America (Little Brown) when Danny Strong brought that bestseller to Hulu. We also delivered a full-on takedown entitled “The Sacklers Get Away with Mass Murder”.
Taylor Kitsch Adds Veritas to Netflix’s Painkiller
If you suspect the subject has struck close to a few homes, well, you’d be dead on. In fact, Kitsch told Esquire’s Madison Vain that he “went to hell and back seventeen times” while helping someone close to him battle addiction. Reading the script for the first time apparently brought all those painful memories back.
“Everything we had gone through was still right there,” said Kitsch, adding that Painkiller was the “most fulfilling job I’ve ever done.”
A Place at the Table
Netflix’s Painkiller might not be the first limited-run series to address the opioid crisis (that distinction belongs to Hulu’s Dopesick). Heck, it’s not even the first time Netflix has tackled the issue itself (cite Narcos). Netflix knows this. So does the rest of the team. And, says Newman, they’ve all taken it to heart.
“It’s something that we had to consider, being the second one,” he told Entertainment Weekly, “but my hope is that, though we cover some of the same ground, it’s not a lot of the same ground, and certainly tonally, we’re very different.”
“It’s really one of the great betrayals of public trust in history” the veteran continued. “A cornerstone of Purdue’s marketing approach was, ‘Let’s play to the doctors because doctors are the people that the patients trust.’ It’s so insidious.”
Insidious is right. And the more the story can be vividly told the greater the chance we won’t ever have to live through such a tragedy all over again.
But chronicling the egregiousness isn’t the only reason Painkiller deserves its own place at the table. Like we said, this six-part stream of storytelling is an assemblage of great pedigree, in every respect. It also happens to be the sort of story no one should ever forget.
Netflix’s Painkiller premieres Thursday, August 10, 2023.