“Painkiller,” developed by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster (co-writers of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) from a New Yorker article by Patrick Radden Keefe and Barry Meier’s Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic, moves down four intertwining tracks. The central one belongs to U.S. Attorney’s Office investigator Edie Flowers (an appropriately enraged Uzo Aduba), who is being interviewed by a law firm planning a civil suit against Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin. She basically narrates the show that follows, telling the story of how pain medication forever altered the American landscape.
Of course, this means Richard Sackler (Matthew Broderick), the Dr. Frankenstein of this monster, has to be a major character, along with his cadre of creeps, including brother Raymond (Sam Anderson) and the other suits who placed profit over caution. Broderick’s take on Sackler is similar (but less effective) to Michael Stuhlbarg’s in “Dopesick,” the award-winning Hulu series that told a similar tale—a kind of sociopathic disengagement with the world. A few flashbacks reveal an abusive father for Richard, and it’s almost implied that that trauma broke him. If there’s a fire in the eyes of Aduba, there’s nothing but ice in Broderick’s.
A battle of wills between Edie and the Sacklers might have been enough for a feature film version of “Painkiller,” but this is a Netflix mini-series—so we need two more. The better of the pair is the “case study” arc of Glen Kryger (Taylor Kitsch), a mechanic who suffers a brutal accident in the premiere that leads to his addiction to OxyContin. Kitsch, an underrated actor in general, does good work here, but it’s ultimately a vein of the series that’s too thin. It’s admirable to highlight the human cost of Richard Sackler’s decisions on so many average people that he never even considered. Still, the rest of “Painkiller” is so frenetic that the Kryger material feels exploitative and manipulative. Because of Kitsch and Carolina Batrczak’s work as his wife, parts of the Kryger arc are undeniably moving. But it’s too predictably manipulative in its writing, like watching a slow-motion car crash.