Painkiller Review: A Missed Opportunity in OxyContin’s Story 2023

The experience of watching Netflix’s miniseries “Painkiller” is truly surreal, though not in the intended peculiar way. For those who have already witnessed the tale of how the Sackler family’s greed ravaged countless lives by introducing OxyContin, a narrative previously portrayed more thoughtfully and comprehensively in Hulu’s “Dopesick,” which emerged a few years earlier, a sense of déjà vu is inevitable.

Both series feature numerous identical real-life characters and plot developments, emphasizing the heartlessness of the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma in unleashing this destructive drug. However, what sets them apart is the execution of their storytelling—where “Painkiller” falls short in terms of writing, direction, and overall presentation, in stark comparison to the superior narrative already in existence.

Painkiller Review: A Missed Opportunity in OxyContin's Story 2023

The issue isn’t merely that “Painkiller” arrives belatedly; even if it had preceded “Dopesick,” it would still have been an inferior production. Regrettably for “Painkiller,” its timing places it in the daunting shadow of a vastly superior series. It fails to introduce any fresh perspective where it should, instead fixating on misguided aspects that undermine the minuscule potential it initially held.

Partially drawing inspiration from Patrick Radden Keefe’s exceptional New Yorker article—a read more worthwhile than investing time in this series—each of the six episodes commences with a greater display of empathy within a few minutes than the entire show manages across its entirety. These opening moments allow real individuals, who have lost loved ones to OxyContin, to share their pain.

However, this poignant start becomes discordant when juxtaposed with the portrayal of Richard Sackler himself, a character whose representation is marred by the ill-suited casting of Matthew Broderick. Broderick never quite settles into the role, and his depiction of an aging Sackler awakening in a lavish mansion while the persistent sound of a smoke detector disrupts the silence feels disconnected from reality.

Accompanied by Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” the first of numerous perplexing musical selections, this portrayal of Sackler delves into a world of haunting apparitions and spectral torment. These scenes, however, are awkwardly executed, striving to emulate the edginess of films like “The Big Short” without the necessary ingenuity to pull off such an endeavor.

In the end, “Painkiller” accomplishes nothing beyond serving as a prime example of how not to narrate this critical story. The series falters in its attempt to convey the devastating impact of OxyContin and the Sackler family’s actions, falling short due to its shortcomings in storytelling prowess and execution.

Unpacking Painkiller A Missed Opportunity in OxyContin's Story
Unpacking Painkiller A Missed Opportunity in OxyContin’s Story

While it’s wise not to dwell excessively on comparing the two series, as multiple perspectives on the same story can be valuable and avoiding mimicry is important, it’s difficult to disregard the glaring deficiencies in this shallow exploration of a profoundly real issue. Much of this shallowness emanates from the casting choices; Matthew Broderick falls notably short of capturing the casual menace that Michael Stuhlbarg infused into his portrayal of Richard Sackler. Additionally, the rigid structure of the series exacerbates its shortcomings.

Even when a performer is better equipped for the task, such as Uzo Aduba’s portrayal of Edie Flowers—a character amalgamating the efforts of many individuals challenging the Sacklers—there’s a palpable sense of the actors contending with subpar writing.

Not only does the storytelling lack depth, failing to match the textured narrative of “Dopesick” where characters’ lives were explored in greater detail, but it also provides an incomplete representation of the gravity of the epidemic.

Aduba’s delivery of narration, often presented during awkwardly interspersed legal strategy meetings, awkwardly serves as an expository device for the plot. This approach feels excessively formulaic, akin to reciting a Wikipedia article in reverse, and the attempted sarcastic undertone comes across as juvenile. “Painkiller” appears to lack faith in its audience’s ability to grapple with the intricacies of battling insatiable greed.

“Dopesick,” reminiscent of the meticulous emotional engagement seen in films like “Dark Waters,” doesn’t shy away from delving into the emotional challenges of confronting heartless corporations. On the contrary, this series seems content with providing a superficial overview devoid of any significant insights.

Instead of delving into the depths of power dynamics, the show leans on recurring scenes featuring Broderick walking a dog, an analogy that seemingly highlights Sackler’s insecurities. However, these moments lack the incisiveness the series believes they possess. As “Dopesick” adeptly conveyed, the more chilling reality is that those in positions of power are often coldly calculated, ready to do whatever it takes to retain their wealth and unbridled influence.

This enduring truth, reinforced by last year’s enlightening documentary “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” underscores the scarcity of justice. The few poignant glimpses into characters like the tormented Glen Kryger (portrayed by an underused Taylor Kitsch), whose life and family bear the indelible scars of the drug, are offset by the overtly cartoonish elements scattered throughout the rest of the series. The distressing and deeply resonant revelations that “Dopesick” uncovers, while not without their imperfections, consistently surpass the narrative attempts made by “Painkiller.”

Unpacking Painkiller A Missed Opportunity in OxyContin's Story
Unpacking Painkiller A Missed Opportunity in OxyContin’s Story

Above all else, “Painkiller” emanates an unnecessary shallowness at its core. Characters remain predominantly superficial, and a consistent impatience undermines the actors’ performances. As the series draws to a close, it wraps up its narrative a bit too neatly, contrasting starkly with the intricate complexities that define the true nature of this story. In direct contrast to “Dopesick,” where the concluding moments could be profoundly devastating in their thorough encapsulation of the narrative, “Painkiller” fizzles out, its lackluster foundation already weakening its impact. The vitality that imbued the prior series is noticeably absent here, leaving a void.

In “Dopesick,” a genuine commitment to meticulously depicting the comprehensive devastation inflicted on countless lives was evident; this dedication is largely absent in “Painkiller.” The former series radiated a palpable sense of care and deliberation, a willingness to invest the necessary time to portray the full scope of the harm endured by numerous individuals. Conversely, the latter fails to capture this essence.

While it was anticipated that “Painkiller” would inevitably pale in comparison to the other series, it is now undeniably evident that it falls far short of the superior storytelling that already exists.

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