jakub | August 10, 2023

the new big pharma drama for fans of Dopesick

TV has an addiction problem: it can’t stop making shows about drugs. Over the past few years, we’ve had Amanda Seyfried’s big pharma drama The Dropout, revealing HBO doc The Crime Of The Century and Dopesick, an Emmy-winning miniseries about the rise of sinister painkiller OxyContin. We’ve been hooked to all of them, gripped by the compelling stories of corporate greed and medical malpractice.

There’s plenty more where that came from, it turns out. Painkiller, another miniseries which tells OxyContin’s traumatic tale, hits Netflix today. OxyContin, if you didn’t know, was a highly addictive prescription drug sold and knowingly mis-marketed by shady outfit Purdue Pharma as a ‘non-addictive’ miracle cure for Americans living each day in constant pain. It is considered one of the main causes of the country’s devastating opioids crisis, which is estimated to have killed nearly one million people since 1999.


How is ‘Painkiller’ different to ‘Dopesick’?

Starring Uzo Aduba (Orange Is The New Black) as a dogged FDA agent on a quest to bring down Purdue, Painkiller covers similar ground to Dopesick, which aired in 2021. Netflix has been keen to stress that the two shows are far from identical, however. “It’s something that we had to consider, being the second one… 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,” executive producer Eric Newman told Entertainment Weekly. “It’s really one of the great betrayals of public trust in history. 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.”

That said, the plots are very similar. Aduba’s character, Edie Flowers, is essentially a port of Rosario Dawson’s driven DEA agent Bridget Meyer. And we still get a decent amount of screentime with Purdue boss Richard Sackler, here played by Matthew Broderick instead of Call Me By Your Name’s Michael Stuhlbarg. The rest of Painkiller follows an array of less powerful but no less important people whose lives were changed by OxyContin. Glen (Taylor Kitsch) is a mechanic that develops a worrying dependence on Oxy when he is prescribed it after an accident in his garage. Young recruit Shannon’s sunny smile and friendly demeanour helps her rise up the ranks at Purdue, before grisly news about the effects of her work raise some unwelcome doubts. Then there’s Britt (Dina Shihabi), Shannon’s boss and perhaps the most shockingly callous character to grace our telly screens this year.

Uzo Aduba in ‘Painkiller’. CREDIT: Netflix

Another way Painkiller differs to Dopesick is in the docustyle interview clips that preface each of the six episodes. “This programme is based on real events, however certain characters, names, incidents, locations and dialogue have been fictionalised for dramatic purposes,” begins an interviewee at the top of every chapter. “What hasn’t been fictionalised is my daughter Elizabeth”, they continue, or “my son Christopher”, before continuing to detail the tragic loss of a loved one directly resulting from OxyContin.

Painkiller doesn’t quite have the depth or nuance of its older rival, but it’s still engrossing – even if you know how it all ends. Aduba is fantastic in the downtrodden, pissed-off justice crusader role, and Broderick puts in his best work for years as Sackler – cruelly capitalist and with a vacuum where his heart should be. As with a lot of Netflix’s recent titles, it can feel a little shallow – ditching valuable character development in favour of ratcheting up the pace to keep us watching. But when the performances are this good, and there’s a story to match, it doesn’t really matter. Dopesick fans will love it all over again.

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