The True Story Behind Netflix's Painkiller (2024)

Painkiller, a Netflix drama out Aug. 10, follows the mint green OxyContin pill’s trail of destruction from the very top—Richard Sackler (Matthew Broderick), the former chairman and president of Purdue Pharma—to the middlemen—the sales reps deployed to blanket the country (Dina Shihabi and West Duchovny)—to the everyday Americans whose lives were irrevocably changed (Taylor Kitsch) by the drug. At the bottom, Edie Flowers, a tenacious investigator for the U.S. Attorneys’ Office (Uzo Aduba) tries to trace the subsequent addiction crisis back to its rotten core. At its center, Painkiller is about the key moments that led to the opioid epidemic—and how they could have been stopped, but weren’t.

At one point, for instance, the lone FDA examiner charged with overseeing the approval process for OxyContin, Curtis Wright (Noah Harpster), became a serious roadblock for Purdue. But Wright would soon sign off on a drug application stating that “delayed absorption, as provided by OxyContin tablets, is believed to reduce the abuse liability of the drug.” The false claim, anchored by those two words—“is believed”—would quell the anxieties of doctors and patients around the country. And a year after OxyContin was approved, Wright left the FDA. He eventually went to work for Purdue.

Painkiller’s plot is based on two pieces of writing: the book Pain Killer by Barry Meier and the New Yorker article “The Family That Built the Empire of Pain” by Patrick Radden Keefe. (Meier is credited as a consulting producer on the show, and Keefe as an executive producer.) Showrunners Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster optioned the book around the same time that executive producer Alex Gibney optioned the article, and they joined forces to create one project.

“The crisis wasn't something that just happened, like a hurricane or a flood,” Gibey says in the show’s press notes. “It was something that was manufactured; manufactured by companies looking to make an egregious profit. I realized that this opioid crisis I've been hearing so much about was not just a crisis, it was really a crime.”

The True Story Behind Netflix's Painkiller (1)

The central figures in Painkiller—and the people they’re based on

Richard Sackler took over one of the myriad family businesses upon the death of his uncle, the psychiatrist and pharmaceutical marketer Arthur Sackler, in 1987. As Matthew Broderick plays him, Richard is eccentric, reclusive, hellbent on making money, and haunted (literally) by his uncle’s (Clark Gregg) legacy. In investigator Edie Flowers’ (Uzo Aduba) professional opinion, the passing of the mantle from Arthur to Richard marked the beginning of OxyContin.

For over 15 years, Purdue had already been making and marketing a morphine-based painkiller called MS Contin. Under Richard’s leadership, the pharmaceutical company swapped the morphine for oxycodone, and OxyContin (“oxy” for pharmaceutical, “contin” for continuous release) was born. It was designed to be a drug that people in need could not refuse, and Purdue recruited an army of young, conventionally attractive sales reps to pressure doctors to prescribe it.

“We live in a country where street drug dealers often go to jail,” co-showrunner Micah Fitzerman-Blue says in the press notes. “We don't live in a country where the corrupt corporate executives who made and marketed the drug often go to jail.”

Painkiller centers two fictional sales reps: Shannon Schaeffer (West Duchovny), an ex-college athlete and new recruit, and Britt Hufford (Dina Shihabi), a veteran sales rep who takes Shannon under her wing. Britt, all glamor and body-con dresses, steers Shannon toward making sure her doctors prescribe more milligrams, no matter the cost.

One doctor prescribes OxyCodone to the fictional Glen Kryger (Taylor Kitsch), a family man and mechanic shop owner who gets injured on the job. Glen, the human anchor of the show, slowly then surely descends into addiction over its six episodes. He represents the more than 300,000 people estimated to have died over the past two decades from overdoses involving prescription painkillers like OxyContin.

If Glen is the human anchor of Painkiller, Aduba’s Edie Flowers, a lawyer working for the U.S. Attorneys’ Office, who is investigating OxyContin, is its moral compass. She’s a fictional composite character, an amalgamation of the countless whistleblowers.

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How does Painkiller tell its story?

While the vast majority of the limited series draws directly from historical events, most of its main characters—Edie, Glen, Shannon, and Britt—are fictional, although the people they stand for are certainly not.

Each episode begins with a real person reading a disclaimer: “This program is based on real events. However, certain characters, names, incidents, locations, and dialogue have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes.”

Then each person briefly shares their own personal story. “What wasn’t fictionalized is that my son, at the age of 15, was prescribed OxyContin,” says one mother, fighting back tears. “He lived in years and years of addiction. And at the age of 32, he died, all alone in the freezing cold in a gas station parking lot. And we miss him.”

“Even the fictionalized elements of this show are grounded in the knowledge that the painful repercussions of opioid addiction are playing out across America every day,” says executive producer Eric Newman in the press notes. “That’s what lies at the heart of Painkiller; trying to understand how this all started, so that we can maybe finally stop it.”

The True Story Behind Netflix's Painkiller (2024)


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