Painkiller Season 1 Review – Uneven, but with hair-raising revelations

By Marc Miller
Published: August 10, 2023 (Last updated: February 17, 2024)
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Painkiller Season 1 Review - Uneven, but with hair-raising revelations


Uzo Aduba’s deeply felt performance unifies themes that connect both of Painkiller’s storylines: a devastatingly effective portrayal of Big Pharma’s disregard for human life.

This review of the Netflix series Painkiller Season 1 does not contain spoilers.

In a Peter Berg production, the producer of Friday Night Lights ensures the adept portrayal of working-class scenes skillfully and with care, particularly when it comes to the effects of opioids in rural and suburban communities. Synthetic heroin has spread like wildfire in the past decade in this area.

Painkiller occasionally feels uneven when Berg and his team approach the architects of the OxyContin epidemic through an absurdist lens, portraying characters with significant hubris. These scenes can be self-indulgent even if they are effective.

However, both are united in the overall theme of disregard for human life.

The story follows three leading players in the birth and investigation of the opioid epidemic. While this is a fictionalized retelling, the series is based on two non-fiction books. One is Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe. The other is Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic by Barry Meier.

Painkiller Season 1 review and plot summary

Two of the three storylines are depicted through the perspective of an investigator for the State’s Attorney named Edie Flowers (Uzo Aduba, who gives the series’ standout performance). Presented as a memory play, Edie contributes her knowledge to a new federal investigation into the opioid epidemic. Flowers was instrumental in uncovering big pharma’s manipulation of oversight officials.

At the helm of Purdue Pharma stands Richard Sackler (Matthew Broderick). In a bid to salvage the company following the passing of his Uncle Arthur Sackler (portrayed by Clark Gregg), he channels all his efforts into a drug named MS Contin. The initial iteration of what would eventually transform into the now-infamous drug was primarily designed to alleviate the pain of cancer patients.

Sackler manipulated the system to broaden the drug’s accessibility to the general public. Illuminating the up-close repercussions and toll of opioid addiction is Glen Kryger (The Terminal List‘s Taylor Kitsch), the owner of an auto repair shop. After a back injury, Glen becomes ensnared in an addiction to synthetic heroin.

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And that’s where the series knocks the viewer over—the devious plan to have citizens hooked on OxyContin. In Glenn’s case, the patient builds tolerance. Instead of taking the medication sooner, the dosage is increased based on the rule. This aligns with the company’s guidelines. Sackler and his marketing representatives earn higher returns based on dosage, not per pill.

Berg directs all six episodes, and Narcos‘ Eric Newman is the showrunner. Berg and Newman draw lines between Purdue Pharma’s marketing reps and any illegal drug trader. The company focuses on young, good-looking women to market to any physician that will let them through the door. West Duchovny plays Shannon Schaeffer, one of the “legal” drug pushers Purdue Pharma hires.

Is Painkiller Season 1 good or bad?

Painkiller is an uneven series that ultimately is recommendable based on jaw-dropping revelations of the toxic cost of the American dream. In the case of Duchovny’s Shannon, Her character represents the sobering reality of the American dream. All Shannon can think of is the high returns, the big city penthouses, and the fast cars.

However, Shannon soon realizes she gets more than she bargained for.

Is Painkiller Season 1 worth watching?

Painkiller is worth watching because Aduba’s deeply felt turn unifies themes that connect both worlds: a devastatingly effective portrayal of the extent and disregard for human life. This accomplishment stems from Berg’s unrestrained use of artistic license in depicting big pharma’s transgressions.

The show is not perfect, perhaps needing to show more restraint in the Sackler storylines. Still, the hair-raising revelations of how far billion-dollar corporations use citizens as money-making Guinea pigs are hard to ignore.

What did you think of Painkiller Season 1? Comment below.

You can watch this series with a subscription to Netflix.

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Netflix, Streaming Service, TV, TV Reviews
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