The week in TV: Painkiller; Alone; Only Murders in the Building; Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip-Hop; Physical

Painkiller (Netflix)
Alone (Channel 4) |
Only Murders in the Building (Disney+)
Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip-Hop (Netflix)
Physical (Apple TV+)

In Painkiller, Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster’s new six-part Netflix drama about the US opioid crisis, there’s the recurring symbolism of a beeping smoke alarm. It keeps going off in the cavernous mansion owned by Richard Sackler, billionaire chairman of Purdue Pharma, the company that developed the opioid OxyContin.

Is this a metaphor for conscience? Or addiction, suffering and death? The opioid crisis remains an ever-spreading stain on the global pharmaceutical history. As related in Painkiller, over two decades an estimated 300,000 people overdosed on prescription drugs such as OxyContin. Still, with Disney+’s award-garlanded Dopesick airing two years ago, is it a shade too soon for another take?

Painkiller, based on a New Yorker article by Patrick Radden Keefe and a book by Barry Meier, is like watching corporate greed, scientific irresponsibility, devious marketing and pitiless victim-blaming fizzing together in one diabolic test tube. Here, the focus is Sackler, played by Matthew Broderick as if he has antiseptic rather than blood running through his veins. “You want to take a drug with twice the kick of morphine and give it to everybody?” someone asks incredulously. Sackler calmly replies: “Yes, I do.”

At the sharp end, communities and lives are decimated: Taylor Kitsch’s mechanic is shown downwardly spiralling from a happy family man to a strung-out junkie. While OxyContin salesperson Shannon (West Duchovny) is bawled out by a furious doctor (“You’re a fucking drug dealer with a ponytail!”), Uzo Aduba’s redoubtable investigator goes after Purdue Pharma as part avenging angel, part human steamroller.

Maybe it’s too soon: there are times that Painkiller feels like a cover version of the more atmospheric Dopesick. Nevertheless, it’s thought-provoking, with strong performances (especially from Aduba) and a firm narrative grip on a catastrophe that never stops sounding a grim, shrill alarm. With devastated real-life parents of victims introducing each episode, it has also driven home that for many, no one has been satisfactorily brought to justice.

Over to Channel 4, where the long-running US survivalist show Alone features all-British contestants for a new six-part series. Eleven Brits have been dumped, unaccompanied, filming themselves, in the Canadian wilderness, home to bears, moose and wolves. The contestant who lasts the longest wins £100k.

Instantly, I’m confused. Are the contestants clued-up bushcrafters or naive TikTokers who think they’re on a jolly? There’s gratuitous nude bathing. One contestant can’t light a fire. Another admits to getting “lost in Tesco”. Some poor soul is injured and has to go home early. A sweet young guy has the despairing look of someone whose Uber keeps cancelling.

‘Dumped’: Eva, lost in Canada, in Alone.

Everyone is perma-terrified, especially at night (it’s like a tent-bound Most Haunted), even though probably (fingers crossed) they wouldn’t be allowed to die. While I’m enjoying Alone, the casting seems a bit ropey. Usually, such shows feature serious survivalists; the whole fun is in watching their egos get annihilated. By contrast, you could imagine most of this particular cohort swooning if they left the backstage enclosure at Glastonbury.

Maybe it’s fanciful, but I like the idea of huge stars clamouring to appear in Only Murders in the Building, now returning for a 10-episode third series on Disney+. The hit camp Manhattan whodunnit, created by Steve Martin and John Hoffman, featuring Charlie (Martin), Oliver (Martin Short) and Mabel (Selena Gomez) as sleuthing podcasters, has already seen some star signings (Amy Schumer; Shirley MacLaine). This time, Paul Rudd delivers a Hollywood blowhard, while Meryl Streep plays Loretta, a thespian wallflower with dashed mothball dreams and a golden heart. Supposedly.

Only Murders… loves playing (a madcap theory here; a stinking red herring there), but it’s also a tightly honed dramedy that never forgets the comedy and fine tunes the characterisation. Along with Mabel’s “old lady energy” and Oliver’s hubris, there’s Charlie’s angst. When, stricken with stage fright, Charlie ends up writhing in a psychological “white room”, it’s reminiscent of the surrealist mime from Martin’s innovative early standup.

meryl streep and martin short seated at a piano, both looking surprised

There’s also the ensemble hoofing: a play called Death Rattle morphs into a musical called Death Rattle Dazzle. Streep even sings, which makes me tense up at first (I couldn’t stand all that dungaree-ed frolicking in Mamma Mia!), but here, Loretta’s crooning is fabulously deranged – like a parallel reality Baby Jane.

Obviously, Only Murders… will be too soft-core/fluffy for some, but it manages to remind everyone that TV crime doesn’t have to mean 24/7 gritty realism and thinly veiled torture porn. If the murders are markedly less alarming than the jazz hands, that’s all part of the charm.

To mark the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, the four-part Netflix docuseries Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip-Hop seeks to place the female contribution in the brightest spotlight it can find. The result is a glossy, energised power-punch of a production, with big-name interviewees, including performers such as Queen Latifah (the series is named after her duet with Monie Love), Saweetie, Da Brat, Remy Ma, crucial early players including MC Sha-Rock, MC Lyte and Roxanne Shanté, and the mostly overlooked women with vision behind the scenes.

Monie Love and Queen Latifah performing Ladies First in Newark, New Jersey, 1990.

Ladies First suffers from the absence of some major players, such as Nicki Minaj, Missy Elliott, Lauryn Hill and Megan Thee Stallion. (If you’re going to keep showing clips from WAP, it’s a shame not to hear from anyone involved in making it.) That said, the programme covers an impressive amount of territory: misogynoir; exploitative deals; stolen aesthetics; sisterhood; double standards, colourism and more. This is a documentary that not only showcases the women of hip-hop; it wants you to know that they were crucial.

Rose Byrne, in purple on right, plays Sheila in the 1980s-set Physical.

I wasn’t initially enamoured of Annie Weisman’s 1980-set Apple TV+ aerobics comedy drama Physical, but it’s since grown on me, like a skin disease from an overtight leotard.

Now in its third and final 10-part series, Sheila (Rose Byrne) has started teaching classes on television, while continuing to battle her food/anxiety disorders and being plagued by visions of her arch rival (Zooey Deschanel with blond hair, channelling Marilyn Monroe).

While still not perfect (shouldn’t self-loathing and patriarchy seen through a disco-haze be more fun?), Physical has definitely ended up being more interesting than when it started.

Star ratings out of five
Only Murders In the Building
Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip-Hop

What else I’m watching

(Sky Atlantic)
Seventh and final series of the elite tech-bro show starring Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti. Somewhat eclipsed by Succession (they were released at a similar time), this also offers corporate savagery and subtly exclusive knitwear.

Damian Lewis, David Costabile, Asia Kate Dillon and Maggie Siff in Billions.

The Case Against Cosby
Interesting two-part documentary that puts laser focus on Bill Cosby’s accusers. Interviewees include former Canadian basketball star Andrea Constand, who secured a conviction for sexual assault then saw it overturned.

No Activity
(BBC Two)
Calling fans of surprise canine sitcom hit Colin from Accounts. This kooky 2015 Australian comedy about a detective stakeout features CFA creators/stars and real-life couple Patrick Brammall and Harriet Dyer. They didn’t write it, but it’s where they originally met and worked together. Aw.

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