Two years after Hulu’s Dopesick examined the devastating effects of the ongoing opioid epidemic in America, Netflix is taking a stab at it.
Painkiller, a six-part miniseries, premiered on Netflix last week, focusing on Purdue Pharma’s role in the multi-decade opioid epidemic. It stars Matthew Broderick as Richard Sackler, the company’s former president and chairman.
The series follows several plotlines, including the inception of OxyContin, Purdue Pharma’s aggressive marketing of the opioid to consumers and healthcare professionals (HCP) in the 1990s, the impact of addiction on families, efforts by law enforcement to stem the tide of the epidemic and the drugmaker’s efforts to avoid publicly taking responsibility for fueling the crisis.
The series is based on the book Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic by Barry Meier as well as The New Yorker article “The Family That Built the Empire of Pain” by Patrick Radden Keefe.
Since its premiere, Painkiller has received middling reviews from critics and audiences, according to Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. Variety called it a “melodramatic and convoluted assessment of the opioid crisis,” while other outlets have referred to Dopesick as the better series.
Still, it has been one of Netflix’s top shows for August and prompted a renewed focus on the causes of the opioid crisis and its damaging effects on families across the country.
More than 1 million people have died due to drug overdoses since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the trend has only worsened in recent years. In fact, 2021 was the deadliest year on record for overdose deaths, according to the CDC, as the country dealt with the compounded effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Notably, at the start of each episode of Painkiller, a parent who has lost their child to the opioid epidemic reads a disclaimer that while some elements have been fictionalized, their own pain is real.
“This program is based on real events, however certain characters, names, incidents, locations and dialogue has been fictionalized for dramatic purposes,” the parents read.
The general public, which often has a love-hate relationship with pharma, has remained intrigued in recent years by stories focusing on industry malfeasance and greed.
In a scene early on in the series, a fictionalized federal investigator played by Uzo Aduba says the “big money in healthcare is in sales, marketing and lies.”
Public interest in healthcare’s bad actors remains high whether it applies to shows centering on Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers, the rise and fall of Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes, or documenting the legal tribulations of ‘Pharma Bro’ Martin Shkreli.
While some of the content in these shows and movies can be sensationalized and take artistic liberties, it ultimately draws public attention to a crisis going on three decades in America that can at times feel hopeless.
Dr. Arthur Robin Williams is the chief medical officer of virtual care provider Ophelia and an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry on substance use disorders at Columbia University.
Williams said prescription drugs are not just consumer product goods but can have life-changing impacts on patients. Just as a flood of opioids resulted in millions of Americans grappling with addiction, Williams noted that medications like Suboxone and Naloxone can help reverse overdoses and turn the tide on the crisis.
He added that in addition to continued PSAs pressing for a change in how addiction treatment is handled in this country, (which Ophelia articulated in its F*ck Rehab campaign earlier this year), regulatory reform that promotes Soboxone, Naloxone and harm reduction practices is needed on the federal level.
While many viewers may come away from the series assuming that the Sackler saga is a generally accurate depiction of the leaders of other large brands in the pharma and biotech space, Williams urged people to keep an open mind.
“It’s easy to misapply that [sentiment] to all pharmaceutical companies and their executives, even when there are a lot of good actors in the space who are more altruistic than profit-oriented,” he said.