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Dopesick vs. Painkiller: Which Is Better?

Kimberly Bliss
Kimberly Bliss Culture Desk Editor

There will never be enough “ink” to write the story of the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma, their role in the opioid epidemic in the U.S., and stories of the lives that overprescribing of OxyContin destroyed. As the U.S. Supreme Court finalizes its decision on a Sackler family legal shield in exchange for a large settlement that is worth billions, and supports both state addiction programs and funds for victim’s families, we are once again, collectively as a nation, reflecting on what went wrong, and how to make it better. 

The story, in any form, deserves to be told, whether a screenplay, a book, or investigative journalism. So when Netflix came out with the series Painkiller, the question wasn’t “why this again?” After all, we already have Dopesick. Rather, the question became, “is it good?” and “if I’ve seen Dopesick on Hulu already, is Painkiller better?” 

The short answer, an emphatic “no.” At one point while watching Painkiller,  I wondered if I was watching a series about the opioid crisis or the Sackler Family Crisis. It’s not like I’m above evil rich family melodrama, I consume enough K Dramas and Succession seasons to indicate otherwise, but now is not the time for the internal Sackler family drama.The highest court in the nation is deciding their very external family drama, and rightfully so. In the end, this is why Dopesick vs. Painkiller isn’t even a fair comparison in my opinion.  

The Similarities Between Dopesick and Painkiller

Dopesick, an eight-episode drama, was released on Hulu in 2021 and created by Danny Strong (co-creator of Empire, and an even better credit– actor in Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Painkiller, a six-episode drama, was released on Netflix this past summer in 2023 and created by Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights). Both series are loosely based on books, Dopesick by Beth Macy, and Pain Killer by Barry Meier, respectively.  Both series dramatize the historical timeline of the rise of Purdue and OxyContin. But Painkiller and Dopesick are not documentaries, they are fictionalized shows reflecting real events. Both series follow the Sackler family, along with fictionalized stories of the regulators who approved the drug, the sales people who sold it, the doctors who prescribed it, and the people who became addicted to it. It was important for both show runners to respect the lives that have been impacted by the OxyContin epidemic, and both shows created characters that are based on an amalgamation of real people, with very real tragedies that perhaps could have been prevented. Some of the most mind boggling moments happen when both show us some behind the scenes jaw-dropping failures in the FDA’s approval process, insatiable corporate greed, and a lot of moments where viewers will wonder how such a thing could be legal. They both have well-known actors, and, at least on paper, a solid cast. They both follow the legal battle to investigate and hold accountable Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, owned by the Sackler family. 

What Makes Dopesick Better Than Painkiller

The biggest difference in the two shows lies in the stories of the main characters that keep us watching. Dopesick is believable, thought-provoking, and heartfelt. Painkiller doesn’t quite engage in the same way, relies on tawdry pharma saleswomen drama too often in a way that feels superficial, and generally struggles to invest in the lives of its main characters more than the Sackler’s. Painkiller’s gut-wrenching exception, however, is in each episode’s opening scene with OxyContin victims or their families briefly sharing their story.

It doesn’t take much to make these stories both devastating and infuriating, but Dopesick handily beats Painkiller on delivery.

In Dopesick, Michael Keaton knocks it out of the park in his role as Dr. Samuel Finnix.  Keaton is measured and wondrous in it. As an actor, his devastating arc from small-town, family doctor to villain happens slowly and with us invariably rooting for him, perhaps even up until the end. 

Dopesick takes place in Appalachia, in a small mining town with limited healthcare resources, and even more limited economic resources. Go-getter Purdue Pharma sales rep Billy Cutler (played by Will Poulter) charms his way into Dr. Finnix’s prescription pad. It is coal country here, and workers endure dangerous conditions. 

Betsy (Kaitlyn Dever) has a work-related injury, and comes to Dr. Finnix, her family doctor, for help. The story between these three characters feels genuine, personal, and flawed in profoundly human ways. It is what holds the episodes together for “Dopesick,” because we can relate to the characters. When there are continuous forks in the road of life, and when one repeatedly takes the wrong turn because oftentimes that’s how life shakes out, the risk is that hitting bottom might mean six feet under. People can understand this and relate to it far more than the drama-coated “Painkiller.”

The struggle to hold the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma accountable is shown in the relentless long-term efforts of Assistant U.S. Attorneys Rick Mountcastle (Peter Sarsgaard) and Randy Ramsayer (John Hoogenaaker) all throughout “Dopesick.” 

Another storyline follows a fictionalized DEA Deputy Director Bridget Meyer (Rosario Dawson) as she, like the attorneys, attempts to expose the shocking truths behind just how OxyContin got to market and its impact on thousands of users. Through these character’s investigations, we uncover how corporations populate and influence the public institutions and regulatory bodies that ultimately failed to protect the public from such a deadly overdose epidemic from even happening in the first place.

In contrast, Painkiller’s story is narrated by a former investigator for Virginia’s US Attorney’s office, Edie Flowers (played by Uzo Adubo), who once failed to get Richard Sackler (Mathew Broderick) held accountable, and is now asked to help try yet again. Flowers is a composite of the two lead investigators in real life. 

Meanwhile, we follow Richard as he wanders around his boring and soulless mansion with the voices in his head dramatized in the in-scene appearance of his late uncle, Arthur Sackler (Clark Gregg), berating him more often than not. Richard imagining a dead uncle in the room with him and sharing the screen with him is distracting. Broderick is appropriately off-putting. He channels his actor’s skills to truly encompass the “ick factor” personality. He seems to almost delight in being a cringeworthy character. Perhaps it is the far cry from roles like Ferris Bueller that attracted him to the role in the first place. He is unpleasant to watch and it definitely serves his purpose. We are repelled by both the man and his actions. 

However, almost too much time is spent on him and his personal ick tics. While it is supposed to complement his actions as head of Purdue Pharma, it almost seems to sensationalize it, to signal that he is inherently a repellent man and this is why he did such bad things. 

Similarly, the strange plot choice of Purdue Pharma sales reps having this party-vibe with loft parties and bad club music and loose women seemed to entertain us with debauchery and explain away the moral hazard of pitching an opioid as non-addictive. Did it happen? I mean, I would assume so. But just how many minutes are we invested in this tacky side show? Too long, is the answer. 

Shannon Schaeffer (West Duchovny), is a down and out recent college grad easily recruited to the good life of an Oxy-Contin sales rep. She is plucked personally by a senior sales rep, Britt Hufford (Dina Shihabi) to be mentored in pharmaceutical sales and the nicer high heel shoes that comes with it. She ends up selling to a shady-from-the-start doctor who prescribes OxyContin to recently injured car mechanic Glen Kryger (Taylor Kitsch). Everyone’s  downfall is similar in strokes with Dopesick. However, they are almost the side show to the Sacklers, and that is unfortunate. 

Which Series Did You Prefer?

At the end of the day, the story is not about the efficacy of an opioid and its side effects. OxyContin remains an FDA-approved opioid with 46 pages of prescribing information, including its serious drug interaction side effects. In many ways, including pharmaceutical sales, OxyContin is similar to any other opioid.

In fact, other opioid drug manufacturers have dramatically increased sales spending as Purdue’s marketing and sales budget has plummeted. And lastly, like all opioids, its efficacy comes with the risk of addiction. 

The key difference is that Purdue Pharma marketed OxyContin and doctors prescribed it like it wasn’t like the other opioids, and this one difference led to thousands experiencing the most severe adverse side effects, including addiction, overdose, and death. 

This is the story both Painkiller and Dopesick seek to tell. In the end, Painkiller seemed like it wanted to entertain us with how the mighty Sacklers had risen and fallen. In contrast, Dopesick humanized the opioid epidemic, and never relented in making sure viewers understood that justice is ultimately the final act the truth is awaiting.

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