Painkiller: Matthew Broderick goes for broke in this queasy take on the Sacklers’ Purdue Pharma horror show

Television: Hard not to feel Netflix’s take on an American tragedy verges on being in poor taste

However badly we feel Ireland to be run, at least we’ve never suffered through something as pernicious, cynical and money-grubbing as the American opioid epidemic. Starting in the mid-1990s, poor blue-collar communities across the United States were flooded with prescription painkillers that were often as potent as heroin. Crime rates soared, lives were destroyed. And a handful of ethically bankrupt pharma executives made billions.

The villain in this story was the underdog drug company Purdue Pharma. It sought to outflank bigger rivals by pushing OxyContin, its cripplingly addictive painkiller, on doctors and their patients. How did it get away with it? What were the authorities doing? And what sort of people could sleep at night growing fat on the pain of others?

Those questions are answered in Netflix’s Painkiller (from today), though with results that land queasily. The big decision the series’s director, Peter Berg, and writers, Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, take is to present the story of the Sackler dynasty, who owned and ran Purdue, as a rock’n’roll farce.

Painkiller is a midnight-black quasi-comedy brimming with absurd people behaving ridiculously. None is more over the top than the mastermind of OxyContin, Richard Sackler. He is portrayed in puckishly cartoonish fashion by Matthew Broderick, an actor generally associated with wry, understated performances.


Not here. Broderick goes for broke, amping up Sackler’s egotism and eccentricity. You know what kind of show this is when a party celebrating the US Food and Drug Administration’s approval of OxyContin is soundtracked by Tusk, Fleetwood Mac’s cocaine-blizzard masterpiece. It’s camp satire orbiting bottomless horror. And while it makes for effective bingeing, viewers may wonder if this is an appropriate way to tell the story.

Painkiller itself seems to have doubts. Each episode begins with a tearful address from the family of someone whose death was caused by OxyContin. Their testimonies are raw and heartbreaking. You’d hope the show would amplify their anger and do right by it. Berger has instead decided to make a hoot. Broderick does his best. His scenes, however, sit uneasily next to a subplot in which a mechanic played by Taylor Kitsch becomes addicted to OxyContin and ends up homeless. Kitsch tries his hardest yet is too square-jawed and movie star-ish to make you believe he’s unravelling.

The extent to which Purdue deliberately manipulated doctors and patients is underscored via a sales rep played by West Duchovny (daughter of David). She’s determined to flog enough OxycContin to make her bonus – only to have an unlikely change of heart late in the day.

Painkiller occasionally seems on the brink of speaking to a bigger truth. Orange Is the New Black’s Uzo Aduba plays one of the lawyers investigating Purdue’s part in the opioid epidemic. The character’s mother was a victim of the 1980s crack epidemic in Washington, DC. There is a moment when you think Painkiller will draw a contrast between authorities’ indifference to the suffering of black Americans and the eventual crackdown on opioids, which affected mainly white communities. Instead, it pivots to another scene in which Broderick is flipping out in his office.

This is an important story, already told in multiple books and documentaries. Two years ago, the Disney+ drama Dopesick conveyed the depth of the trauma opioids brought on small-town America. Painkiller takes a different approach and tries to have fun with it. In the real world, though, nobody is laughing at the horrors unleashed by Purdue and it is ultimately hard not to feel that Netflix’s take on an American tragedy verges on being in poor taste.