Making a compelling show about the opioid crisis was certainly a challenge for “Painkiller” executive producer Eric Newman — especially one that kept viewers engaged for the entirety of the Netflix six-episode limited series without feeling like the show was overly burdensome emotionally.
“Because so many people know someone [or] have lost someone from opioid abuse, it can appear daunting, to jump into a show on the subject, and we were very conscious about not wanting it to feel an exercise in grief,” Newman told TheWrap.
With the hopes that Netflix’s broad reach will share the tragic story of the epidemic that has destroyed so many lives and crushed an uncountable number of families — and “why it can’t happen again” — with as many people as possible, the “Painkiller” team adjusted the series’ tone to ensure viewers would stick it out until the end.
“The tone, the casting, all of it was considered when we made this show, [with] the hope being that, as you are now three episodes in, it doesn’t feel like a tragedy, yet it’s headed that way,” Newman said. “You likely know where the story goes, but the goal is to keep as many viewers as we can till the end of the show to help get this message out.”
“Painkiller,” which is now streaming on Netflix, centers on the irreversible damage prompted by the widespread production and marketing of OxyContin, the opioid popularized by the Sackler dynasty’s Purdue Pharma, whose tagline for the drug insisted that less than 1% of users suffer from addiction.
Consulting producer Barry Meier, whose 2003 book exposed the Sackler’s role in the opioid crisis, found that the fictional retelling of the story “liberates itself… from the actual facts in the book, and transforms them in a creative way.”
One way the series was elevated with new material, according to Meier, was by reviving Arthur Sackler (played by Clark Gregg) who haunts his nephew, Richard (Matthew Broderick) years after his death as Richard pioneers a financially profitable business while leaving a trail of destruction in his footsteps.
“Arthur Sackler, who was the patriarch of the Sackler family, dies in 1987 — That’s a decade before OxyContin was ever made,” Meier told TheWrap. “As a journalist, I couldn’t revive Arthur Sackler as much as I wanted to in the book, but in the show, he’s very much alive.”
As Arthur’s ghost picks apart Richard’s decisions to build an empire on OxyContin, doubt of how the business might impact the Sackler legacy crowds into Richard’s mind.
“It’s their interactions that really sort of open up the character of Richard Sackler,” Meier said. “It’s a way that you get to know him and what motivates that character in a way that would have been impossible to tell in a book.”
While documenting the Sackler family’s rise, “Painkiller” also gives a face to countless stories of families struggling with opioid addiction, including Glen (Taylor Kitsch), the owner of an auto repair shop who falls into an insurmountable addiction after being prescribed OxyContin for pain following a work place injury. Glen, alongside naive Purdue Pharma representative Shannon (West Duchovny), was crafted as a composite of nearly “50 different stories about people who had a shared very similar experience,” according to Newman.
“One of the things that was really important to us in making the show was capturing a number of different points of view,” Newman said. “These things take a village to happen. This disaster had a lot of players in it — victims and perpetrators, people who look the other way, and people who blew the whistle.”
Investigator Edie Flowers (Uzo Aduba), who alerts her boss to a string of high prescriptions for OxyContin in Virginia, was one of those whistle blowers, with her character being composed of “part Barry Meier and part a number of investigators who noticed something was wrong,” Newman said.
“That slightly naive point of view — the window into the story and investigative angle… once was Barry in 2003, where he saw something and said, ‘This is wrong, something’s happening here,’” Newman continued.
For Edie, who holds a personal connection to the previous crack cocaine epidemic in early 1980s, putting the pieces together of the unfolding tragedy is one thing, but building a case against the Sackler family was another mission all together.
“There are [pivotal scenes] where Edie learns things, Edie meets people, Edie discovers things and some of those scenes are very much based on experiences that I had,” Meier said. “And she only learns things as I did because they were people that called her up at night, or were willing to meet me in out of the way places and tell me, ‘This is horrible — there’s something wrong going on. They know it’s going on, and you need to do something about it.’”
“Painkiller” is now streaming on Netflix.