TV Review: Painkiller should be a slam-dunk – but it’s painfully bad

Painkiller (Netflix) is puzzlingly bad. It’s a slam-dunk story, how a pharmaceutical company developed OxyContin (a painkiller based on powerful opioids, the type normally found in end-of-life cancer treatments), and persuaded the regulators in the US to allow its use for everyday pain treatment under the supervision of a doctor. 

The ensuing epidemic of addiction and death ravaged families and communities across America, triggering a long fight for justice against company, Purdue Pharma, and the Sackler family that controlled it.

It has goodies, baddies, tragedy, a moral, it’s such a good story that it’s already been told in Dopesick on Disney+, a compelling eight-parter that told the story from all angles. 

Painkiller takes the same approach, with more of a focus on Richard Sackler, played by Matthew Broderick.

It starts well, Sackler waking in a huge mansion with marble floors, irritated by a smoke-alarm with a dead battery in another room, that appears to be four miles away. 

Broderick plays him as bloodless and world-weary, you want to know more. 

And then he kind of disappears from the story and we’re introduced to a Federal attorney (played by a believably sceptical Uzo Aduba) who stumbled across OxyContin abuse while investigating a doctor for fraud. 

Then we meet a car repair shop owner who is obviously going to end up on OxyContin.

If you watched Dopesick, you’ll know that it was gritty and real and rattled along, drawing you in with interesting characters and effortlessly shifting from one scene to the next. 

Painkiller is clunky in comparison, with disjointed scenes that make it look like it was shot by three of four different directors.

The federal attorney, Edie Flowers, asks for a chair to be removed from a meeting when she learns that her nemesis Sackler had previously sat there. 

I’m not sure if this happened in real life, but it fell flat as a dramatic device. 

The doctor who treats the car repair shop guy speaks in a pantomime German accent for reasons that are never made clear. 

And when Purdue sales exec Britt Hufford starts mentoring Shannon Schaeffer, there is a pointless suggestion that they are about to start a relationship, shot in a way that will appeal to seedy men who like lesbian soft porn.

It feels like someone in charge took a look at the first episode and said we need to sex it up. Which isn’t exactly dignified when you consider the number of people whose lives were ruined by this drug.

The biggest failure is the under-use of Broderick in the first episode. He has a really good take on Richard Sackler, I wanted to see more. Maybe the show improves after the first episode, and we’re given a better look at Sackler’s conscience.

But if you want a proper look at the underbelly of human nature, filtered through a small pill, then watch Dopesick.

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