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Netflix’s ‘Painkiller’ executed adequately, yet remains insightful

Image used with permission from Netflix
The Netflix show “Painkiller” received 7.2 million total views following its Aug. 10 premiere, according to Netflix. The show secured the second spot in the streaming platform’s top 10 list in the United Kingdom.

Netflix’s new thought-provoking series “Painkiller” explores the harrowing origin and impact of the opioid crisis in the United States. Starring Matthew Broderick as the leading role of pharmaceutical company owner Richard Sackler, the six-episode drama weaves together four interconnected storylines to demonstrate the drug’s devastating consequences in American society.

The series is based on the book “Painkiller” by Barry Meier and the New Yorker Magazine article “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain” by Patrick Radden Keefe. “Painkiller” tells the story of the Sackler family, particularly Richard Sackler who owned Purdue Pharma in the 1990s and created the opioid OxyContin.

Possessing a nearly identical chemical makeup to heroin, OxyContin was an extremely addictive opioid that Purdue Pharma marketed as a safe, extended-release pain reliever in 1996. This deceptive promotion led to widespread prescription, unintentionally turning some patients into “pill mill” doctors, where they were prescribed opioids for non-existent or exaggerated pain, increasing addiction. The drug’s innocent appearance as a painkiller also attracted street dealers, expanding the crisis to substance abusers seeking its euphoric high.

The series weaves Richard’s story with three other plot lines to explore the drug’s development. Edie Flowers, played by Uzo Aduba, is a lawyer determined to put an end to the drug’s destruction; Shannon Shaeffer, played by West Duchovny, is a sales representative taken in by the riches and glamor of the drug-dealing business; and, Glen Kryger, played by Taylor Kitsch, is a mechanic who becomes addicted to OxyContin.

Each episode begins with a disclaimer that the series is based on real events, but some elements are fictionalized. A non-actor then shares a true story of a loved one who has been impacted by OxyContin. These stories were incredibly moving and reveal how the drug has impacted millions of users. However, the series isn’t suited for lighthearted binge-watching due to its intense and distressing content.

The “Painkiller” soundtrack features songs from famous artists like Simon & Garfunkel, Beastie Boys and Rick Ross. The series is home to some very fast-paced and ominous-sounding songs, which successfully bring to life some of “Painkiller”’s most tense scenes.

However, while attempting to offer a comprehensive portrayal of the opioid crisis, the series occasionally falters in its storytelling style. In some moments, the show teetered between a dramatized documentary and pure drama, causing some inconsistency. The narrator Edie often takes viewers out of the heart of the story, and makes you feel like you’re watching a documentary retelling, as opposed to a real-life narrative of the opioid epidemic.

While the show’s format may be unconventional, the character-driven storylines truly engage the audience. Glen’s journey humanizes the potential for addiction, while Shannon’s narrative illustrates the allure of working for Purdue Pharma. I challenge you not to have your heart broken with Glen in the sixth episode, or to not feel the rage and pain of Edie in the fifth episode. Additionally, the performances of Aduba and Broderick truly stand out over the course of the series.

Additionally, the Hulu limited series exploring the emergence of OxyContin, “Dopesick,” has already based a series on the event and received more success. The performances of Michael Keaton and Kaitlyn Dever in “Dopesick” are empathetic and captivating, a quality absent in “Painkiller.”

Furthermore, “Painkiller” fails to trust that its audience has even an ounce of context on the matter. Instead, the series exhaustively dives into every little detail, causing many scenes to become monotonous.

Ultimately, “Painkiller” offers a valuable perspective on the opioid crisis, fueled by remarkable performances. While its format may be occasionally disjointed, the series remains an insightful dive into the opioid epidemic. If you’re interested in looking at the true-life narrative of OxyContin’s impact, accompanied by standout performances, “Painkiller” is worth your time, although it may require a few episodes to fully immerse yourself in its narrative.


If you are worried about drug abuse or about a friend, please reach out to one of our school counselors or a member of the Safeguarding Team. You can also confidentially get support outside of school by connecting with one of these helplines:

SAFELINE tel: 0845 767 8000

Helpline providing information and advice on mental health, 1 p.m. – 11 p.m.

The Samaritans tel: 0845 790 90 90

24-hour confidential, emotional support for anyone in crisis.

Childline tel: 0800 1111

Call, email, or chat 24-hour access.

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About the Contributor
Zoe Karibian, Media Team
Zoe Karibian ('26) is a member of the Media Team for The Standard in Advanced Journalism.

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