‘Painkiller’ Review: Netflix Miniseries Takes On The Opioid Crisis With Mixed Results

This fictionalized retelling—with Matthew Broderick as Richard Sackler of Purdue Pharma—jumps between timelines and perspectives, sometimes burying the point beneath visual flair.

Taylor Kitsch and Carolina Bartczak in Painkiller. KERI ANDERSON/NETFLIX

America’s opioid epidemic is an ongoing crisis so vast and complex that it’s hard to contain in a single TV series or film. To that growing list, which includes Hulu’s award-winning Dopesick, we now add Painkiller. This six-episode Netflix (NFLX) miniseries attempts to cram in as much history and information as possible, with mixed results. 

Painkiller, billed as a fictionalized retelling of the origins and aftermath of the opioid crisis, jumps between several timelines and perspectives, documenting both the makers and users of OxyContin. The series, created and written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, is based on Barry Meier’s Pain Killer: A “Wonder” Drug’s Trail of Addiction and Death and Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain

Uzo Aduba and Matthew Broderick in Painkiller. KERI ANDERSON/NETFLIX

It connects its parallel narratives via Edie Flowers (Uzo Aduba), an investigator for the U.S. Attorney’s office who recounts her investigation into the drug and Purdue Pharma. Matthew Broderick plays Richard Sackler, head of Purdue Pharma, who wants to make as much as possible no matter the effects. Elsewhere, Taylor Kitsch embodies a hard-working family man, Glen Kryger, who gets hooked on Oxy after an injury, and West Duchovny (yes, the daughter of David) is an on-the-rise pharmaceutical sales rep who pushes Oxy to local doctors. 

The episodes flash between these storylines, sometimes replaying scenes or dialogue, and the series has a brash, fast-paced vibe that doesn’t always connect with the serious nature of situations onscreen. The show’s producers have said the stylized visual and narrative tone is intended to mirror the impact of taking an opioid, with a high and an eventual low, and Berg does capture that successfully at many points. Other times it’s off-putting, especially as each episode opens with a real-life figure describing the death of a loved one to OxyContin (the victim is usually someone’s child). Rarely does the series linger on the emotional impact of these losses. 

West Duchovny in Painkiller. KERI ANDERSON/NETFLIX

While the Sackler family is real, many of the other characters are not. Glen, played with nuance and vulnerability by Kitsch, is a fictional variation of many everyday people who became addicted to Oxy after being prescribed the drug for genuine pain. Similarly, Edie is a composite. As a character, she’s effective, creating a moral center-point for the story. Dopesick did something similar, with composite and fictional characters—a useful technique in a drama. But Painkiller does leave the viewer curious for more of the true story. The show raises a lot of good questions and makes important points, but occasionally it feels like details are omitted in favor of visual flair.  

The opioid crisis is unceasing and perpetually relevant, so it’s no surprise it continues to appear onscreen. At best, these dramas can encourage empathy and drive viewers towards other sources with more information on just how extensive the epidemic is. Painkiller is a highly entertaining, easy watch, which may seem odd to say about a show about how legal drug use has ruined thousands of lives. But if it raises awareness maybe it doesn’t matter how the story is told, as long as it continues to be told. 

Painkiller premieres on Netflix on August 10th. 

‘Painkiller’ Review: Netflix Miniseries Takes On The Opioid Crisis With Mixed Results