In the picture

Painkiller, an eye-opening limited documentary series by Netflix, takes an insider’s look at how big pharma can peddle addictive opioids and brand them as medicine, even if it leads to addiction and death of patients in more cases than you can imagine.

August 20, 2023

Painkiller ☆☆☆ 1/2

Starring: Matthew Broderick, Uzo Aduba, Clark Gregg, Taylor Kitsch

Creators: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster


hen doctors recommend medication for any disease, as patients, we depend on their years of education, and the expertise they have gained through those years, followed by being practicing doctors.

However, addiction to medication is also a significant, long-term epidemic. It has swept the United States of America, who are global market leaders.

When doctors appear on television though, making allowances for opioids as the “best” and “strongest” pain medication, something is not right and yet, we fall for it.

What some often fail to mention are the side effects such as how these “pain” medications can make an addict out of a person who has no previous history of addiction. Some often don’t warn that individuals – who have battled addiction and have become sober after a painful cycle of relapse and recovery – should not be prescribed any such opioids.

In both cases, if they are prescribed such a medication due to extreme pain levels, both need to be monitored due to addictive properties in such a drug. Even in such a scenario, becoming addicted is a real possibility.


To learn more, you have to watch the astonishing and clarifying limited documentary series called Painkiller, released and produced by Netflix. A lot more becomes abundantly clear through each episode.

Before viewing, one thing is important to note. Every episode opens with a person who sits before the camera and talks about the loss of someone due to opioids while admitting events may have been dramatized to a degree. What is not totally fictionalized are these confessionals by people who have seen what such drugs can do to a person in real life.

“What wasn’t fictionalized is that my son, at the age of 15, was prescribed Oxycontin. 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,” says one mother.

No one makes home videos of addictive days of a loved one or follows around big pharma executives as they are selling these dangerous drugs and telling doctors to recommend them to patients.

The limited series also covers just how big pharma can be about greed rather than finding alternative solutions.

The fictionalization begins as actors appear on the screen and we learn about the psyche of big pharma.

Matthew Broderick and Clark Gregg play members of the same family with the former being the alive nephew and Gregg technically being the dead uncle. They have a pharma company and one where Broderick bets everything on rebranding an old drug with a lot more ingredients that make it addictive.

Gregg is dead but we see him as the voice that convinces Broderick to pursue every bad decision even if it means a loss of lives. For them, the bottom line is increasing profits.

Uzo Aduba stars as a fiery investigator, who finds patterns and figures out the modus operandi of one pharmaceutical company and why this epidemic of pain pill addiction is becoming worse.

There are tactics employed by one such company called Purdue but instead of sending salespeople, they send beautiful women who flirt with doctors and even allude to monetary funding for doctors if they prescribe a new drug by Purdue called Oxycontin, which contains substance that is also found in heroin.

Purdue convinces their sales team that the pill is not just a lifesaver but akin to being a miracle drug that has descended from the skies. It is like watching someone being recruited to a cult with lines like “Believe in Oxycontin, trust in Oxycontin.”

The addictive properties in the drug are not technically revealed to the sales team. Whomever convinces more doctors to prescribe their drug to patients, the richer that sales team member gets.

As you watch, you realize that dramatizing this documentary was necessary. Opening with a person who looks straight at the camera and says opioids killed their loved ones is a strong reminder that we are not watching a mockumentary but a series that is a staunch reminder that when taking a pill, particularly pain meds, monitoring and not fudging around with recommended dosage – even if you do develop a tolerance for it – is essential.

You can be a mechanic with a garage and a slew of employees, leading a healthy, happy life but become an addict after an accident, even though you don’t have any history of addiction. You can be a teenager with a promising future cut short. It is as tragic as it is infuriating.

Adding actors like Matthew Broderick and Clark Glegg as well as a slew of others who reenact the roles of each story told at the start of the episode, gives the documentary a sense of realism and surrealism.

Knowing that it is a true story adds a level of tension that would have been missing otherwise. Other techniques like Broderick talking to the camera as his brain churns out new and horrifying ideas is a slick format and one that Netflix first introduced with its series, House of Cards - much like the Kevin Spacey-Robin Wright fictional series where Spacey talks to the camera and later on, Robin Wright.

Given how it is made in a linear and a non-linear format, and edited in crisp fashion, watching this particular documentary series will not make you feel like you wasted time but create a sense of awareness about the pharma industry.

Rating system: *Not on your life * ½ If you really must waste your time ** Hardly worth the bother ** ½ Okay for a slow afternoon only *** Good enough for a look see *** ½ Recommended viewing **** Don’t miss it **** ½ Almost perfect ***** Perfection