Painkiller review: Netflix drama treads familiar ground with lacklustre results

The drama is out on Netflix now

Edie Flowers (Uzo Aduba) and Richard Sackler (Matthew Broderick) in Painkiller. (Netflix)
Uzo Aduba and Matthew Broderick as Edie Flowers and Richard Sackler in Painkiller. (Netflix)
  • 📺 Where to watch Painkiller: Netflix from 10 August

  • ⭐️ Our rating: 3/5

  • 🍿 Watch it if you liked: Dopesick, The Big Short, Thank You For Smoking 

  • 🎭 Who's in it?: Uzo Aduba, Matthew Broderick, Taylor Kitsch and Clark Gregg 

  • How long is it? 6 x 50 minute episodes

  • 📖 What’s it about? The causes and consequences of America's opioid epidemic unfold in this fictional drama following its perpetrators, victims and an investigator seeking the truth.

Painkiller aims for audacious satire, dishes up indignation and looks to ignite the embers of debate around the US's opioid addiction over six incisive episodes.

By telling a fictionalised version of the story of Oxycontin — which Disney+ did so successfully with Dopesick — creators Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Hapster go back over old ground with an ensemble cast including Matthew Broderick (Richard Sackler), Clark Gregg (Arthur Sackler Sr), Taylor Kitsch (Glen Kryger) and Uzo Aduba (Edie Flowers).

However, despite the presences of some serious acting talent steering this narrative towards its finale, Painkiller feels like a heavy-handed interpretation which required more tact and less tub thumping.

Shannon Shaeffer (West Duchovny) in Painkiller. (Netflix)
West Duchovny as Shannon Shaeffer in Painkiller. (Netflix)

In short, this adaptation of the story behind Oxycontin creators Purdue Pharma lacks subtlety.

Having taken their inspiration from the New Yorker article by Patrick Radden Keefe, these Emmy-nominated creators (Transparent), pack copious amounts of exposition into those first fifty minutes.

Initially by establishing premise and point of view through fictional authority figure Edie Flowers, who represents the US attorney’s office, before unpacking the story via voice over and flashback.

A tactic which is effective in giving audiences the bare bones of this Oxycontin tale but lacks finesse and fails to engage on the same level as other adaptations.

Glen Kryger (Taylor Kitsch) in Painkiller. (Netflix)
Taylor Kitsch as Glen Kryger in Painkiller. (Netflix)

Meaning that characters like the fresh-faced sales rep Shannon Schaeffer (West Duchovny), who is introduced pressuring doctors into prescribing Oxycontin, lacks empathy from the outset.

Every person here, either real or imagined, has an instant disadvantage when it comes to telling their story in Painkiller, as people are reduced to archetypes or never given enough screen time.

Matthew Broderick’s take on Richard Sackler lacks characterisation because of this, while Clark Gregg suffers a similar fate as Arthur Sackler Sr. A fact which dilutes the drama and ultimately undermines any emotional impact.

Painkiller. Uzo Aduba as Edie in episode 102 of Painkiller. Cr. Keri Anderson/Netflix © 2023
Uzo Aduba as Edie in Painkiller (Netflix)

That being said, Painkiller does seek to drive home the reality of the opioid epidemic by opening each episode with a talking head tribute. An approach which aims at empathy, but merely manages to underline the lack of subtlety and undermine this well intentioned drama as a whole.

What other critics thought of Painkiller:

The Telegraph: Matthew Broderick's cartoonish spin on Sackler ignores the gravity of the opioid crisis

Evening Standard: This drama exploring America’s opiod crisis feels achingly real

A fact which leaves performances from Emmy award winners like Uzo Aduba (Orange is the New Black / Mrs. America) as an afterthought.

Because of this, Painkiller exists in a dramatic limbo, somewhere between successful satire, incisive social commentary and agenda driven fiction.

Painkiller is available to stream on Netflix from 10 August.

Watch the trailer for Painkiller: