The Big Picture

  • Painkiller is a fictionalized drama series that sheds light on the devastating impact of the opioid epidemic caused by overprescribing addictive painkillers.
  • The series is based on real events and figures, including the Sackler family, who played a significant role in turning OxyContin into a widely available and highly addictive drug.
  • Painkiller only scratches the surface of the damage caused by opioid abuse, with approximately 300,000 people dying from prescription painkiller overdoses in the last two decades.


Painkiller is a disturbing six-part drama about the impact that the opioid epidemic had on the world when highly addictive medications became widely available and overprescribed by doctors. The series shows how Richard Sackler (Matthew Broderick) used the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma to turn the painkiller Oxycontin into a “blockbuster drug,” with little concern for the medication’s increasing availability on the black market. While Painkiller is a fictionalized depiction of the birth of the opioid crisis, it refers to many real events and figures, including the Sackler family. Sadly, Painkiller only scratches the surface of the damage that opioid abuse has caused. The series ends with a title card suggesting that approximately 300,000 people died in the last two decades from overdoses involving prescription painkillers like OxyContin, and Painkiller is only based on one of them.

Painkiller Netflix Poster

Painkiller

Painkiller is an American drama limited series made for Netflix and created by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster.

Release Date
August 10, 2023

Cast
Uzo Aduba, Matthew Broderick, Taylor Kitsch, Dina Shihabi

Seasons
1

What Is ‘Painkiller’ Based On?

Painkiller largely draws inspiration from Patrick Radden Keefe’s highly influential article for The New Yorker entitled “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain” and his extensive 2021 novel of the same name, which detailed the direct influence of the Sackler family history that he had learned through investigation. It also incorporates details about the opioid crisis that were revealed in Barry Meier’s 2003 nonfiction novel The Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic and other related texts, which examines the psychological impacts of addiction. These novels have been highly influential in raising awareness for addiction to prescribed medications like Oxycontin.

Characters like the opioid addict Glen Kryger (Taylor Kitsch), his wife Lily (Carolina Bartczak), and their son Tyler (Jack Mulhern) were created for the series in order to show the effects that opioid abuse has. Each episode of Painkiller begins with the disclosure that the program is “based on real events” and that some characters, situations, and story elements were fictionalized for dramatic purposes. In order to emphasize parallels to reality, interviews with real victims are incorporated.

How Does the Sackler Dynasty Connect to OxyContin?

While some of the characters within Painkiller are composites based on multiple people, the series is fairly accurate in detailing the history of the Sackler family. The Sacklers are one of the wealthiest business families in the world and played a role in the funding of various art institutions and universities. Arthur Sackler (portrayed in flashbacks by Clark Gregg) was highly influential within the New York medical scene due to his research into psychiatry.

The controversial techniques Arthur used to market drugs for Purdue Pharma led to an increase in advertising for prescription painkillers. While Arthur died in 1987, his brothers Raymond (Sam Anderson) and Mortimer (John Rothman) were granted control of the pharmaceutical company Purdue Frederick. Raymond’s son Richard (Broderick) continued his research into painkillers throughout the 1990s as the leader of Purdue Pharma.

Richard focused his research on OxyContin, which purely contained the active ingredient of oxycodone; this was a more extreme version of Purdue Pharma’s previously existing drug MS Contin. While there were concerns about OxyContin’s addictive qualities, Purdue Pharma sales representatives referred to a study that suggested that addiction occurred in only a minority of patients. This evidence was refuted by one of the article’s original authors, Herschel Jick, who stated that it had been miscited. Nevertheless, OxyContin was approved by the FDA in 1995.

How OxyContin Kicked Off the Opioid Crisis

West Duchovny in Painkiller
Image via Netflix

OxyContin was introduced to the market shortly thereafter and became widely popular within its first five years of release. The Sackler family had covertly influenced the approval process; the approval was signed by Dr. Curtis Wright (Noah Harpster), who became an employee of Purdue Pharma only two years later. Richard and Purdue Pharma began to invest heavily into advertising, with generous bonuses awarded to sales representatives that sold the most. Doctors that wrote the most prescriptions were rewarded by Purdue Pharma generously, with OxyContin generating more than a billion dollars a year.

Richard altered the sales strategy in order to prioritize the strength of the doses, which made them even more addictive; concerns from individual doctors within the medical community regarding the drug’s safety were ignored, as the Purdue Pharma referred back to the study that seemed to indicate the drug’s safety, and placed all blame on “drug abusers.” As OxyContin sales skyrocketed, opioids became more readily available on the black market due to the number of prescriptions sold.

John Brownlee Painkiller
Netflix

Uzo Aduba’s character Edie Flowers may be fictitious, but she serves as an amalgamation of various federal investigators from Louisville, Kentucky that prosecuted Purdue Pharma for misrepresenting the dangers of OxyContin. The Sackler family settled the case for $24 million but were subsequently hit with additional lawsuits linking them directly to the increase in opioid-related deaths since the birth of OxyContin. Purdue Pharma declared bankruptcy in 2019.

Nevertheless, the Sackler family continued to distance itself from the drug. The publication of Keefe’s article (which inspired the 2019 HBO documentary Crime of the Century) led to an increased awareness of the Sackler family’s role in the crisis; as seen in last year’s Academy Award-nominated documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, photographer Nan Goldin led a campaign by artists to take down the Sackler name at museums and universities that they had donated to.

However, the situation is still ongoing, and even recent fictionalized adaptations haven’t been able to incorporate every piece of breaking news. After Purdue declared bankruptcy, the Sacklers paid $4.5 billion in exchange for legal protection. A judge overturned the initial settlement in 2021, alleging that the Sacklers were liable for civil charges. The Sackler family agreed to pay a $6 billion settlement; a Supreme Court case considering the Justice Department’s statements began on August 10.

As awareness about the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma continues to spread, there’s been an influx of creative projects that have attempted to chronicle the opioid crisis. Painkiller isn’t the first prestige miniseries to tackle the opioid crisis, as Hulu’s Emmy-Award-winning miniseries Dopesick covered similar events, with Michael Stuhlbarg in the role of Richard Sackler.

Painkiller is now available to stream on Netflix in the U.S.

Watch on Netflix

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