Is Painkiller on Netflix based a true story? Explained

Is Painkiller on Netflix based a true story? (Image via Netflix)
Is Painkiller on Netflix based a true story? (Image via Netflix)

Painkiller premiered on Netflix nearly four months ago, on August 10, 2023 and garnered attention with its intense narrative. The six-episode limited series revolves around the rise of Purdue Pharma, owned by the Sacklers, and its role in the opioid crisis. It is inspired by a real-life controversy and was developed after extensive research. Some of the characters are based on real people, while others are fictional.

The show is a creation of Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, who previously wrote the screenplay for the Tom Hanks-led biographical drama A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. They also wrote for the Walt Disney Pictures fantasy film Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, starring Angelina Jolie.

The series is directed by Peter Berg and produced by Chris Hatcher. Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster, Eric Newman, and Alex Gibney serve as the executive producers. The cast of Painkiller includes notable names like Uzo Aduba, Sam Anderson, Matthew Broderick, Clark Gregg, John Ales, Tyler Ritter, and Taylor Kitsch.

How much of Netflix's Painkiller is true

The series is based on Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, a New Yorker article by investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe, and Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America's Opioid Epidemic, a book authored by Barry Meier.


Each episode begins with a real person stating that the series is based on actual events, but “certain characters, names, incidents, locations, and dialogue have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes.”. It is then stated that they lost near and dear ones because of the opioid crisis.

Commenting on the show’s authenticity, Newman had said in a press note that even its fictionalized aspects highlight a harsh reality.

“Even the fictionalized elements of this show are grounded in the knowledge that the painful repercussions of opioid addiction are playing out across America every day. That’s what lies at the heart of Painkiller; trying to understand how this all started, so that we can maybe finally stop it,” Neuman had said.

Interestingly, the Hulu miniseries Dopesick and the documentary drama Crime of the Century also deal with similar subjects.

Are Curtis, Edie, Glen, and others from Painkiller real people?

Glen Kryger, played by Taylor Kitsch, has a tragic arc on the show as he gets addicted to painkillers, which takes a toll on his relationships with his family and eventually claims his life. According to Peter Berg, the character is a work of fiction, but his journey resonates with real-life experiences.

“I’ve known Glens. I’m sure you’ve known Glens or if you don’t know them personally, you know someone that does,” he told Rotten Tomatoes.

Similarly, Edie Flowers, an investigator with the United States Attorney General’s office, is a fictional character. However, she is modeled on several investigators who led the fight against the Sacklers.

A still from Painkiller. (Image via Netflix)
A still from Painkiller. (Image via Netflix)

Again, Shannon Schaeffer isn’t based on a real person, either. However, Painkiller does feature a few characters that are based on real people. Richard Sackler, the chairman and president of Purdue Pharma, played by Matthew Broderick, is one such character in the show.

The series touches upon his personal life, in particular, his love for his dog, which was mentioned in Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty.

Sam Anderson stars in the role of Raymond Sackler, Richard’s father, who acquired Purdue Pharma. Meanwhile, Clark Glegg and John Rothman play his brothers, Arthur and Mortimer, respectively.

Similarly, Noah Harpster plays Curtis Wright, the government official who helped Purdue Pharma get the Food and Drugs Administration’s approval for OxyContin.

About the OxyContin scandal in the US

Purdue Pharma developed OxyContin, a pain-relieving drug, as a fast-release alternative to other opioids. It was greenlit by the FDA under questionable circumstances in 1995, following which it hit the market the next year, and doctors were asked to prescribe it in the highest possible dose.

A still from Painkillers. (Image via Netflix)
A still from Painkillers. (Image via Netflix)

OxyContin eventually triggered the nationwide opioid crisis, which resulted in widespread addiction to painkillers that affected nearly 2.5 million people. However, Purdue Pharma distanced itself from the controversy.

Nonetheless, the company faced several lawsuits and eventually filed for bankruptcy in 2019. Purdue Pharma was also asked to pay $6 billion to states to settle pending lawsuits.

Despite this, Richard Sackler maintains that he and his family were not directly involved in the scandal.

Meanwhile, all six episodes of Painkiller are available to stream on Netflix.

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Edited by Yukta Baruah