Netflix's "Painkiller" Is Based on the True Story of How the Opioid Crisis Spun Out of Control

Netflix's "Painkiller" tells the story of how one family built a business that helped launch the opioid crisis, and how they evaded real consequences for a long time even amid ongoing legal struggles. The limited series, which premiered on Aug. 10, is a fictionalized version of real events chronicled in Patrick Radden Keefe's 2017 New Yorker article "The Family That Built an Empire of Pain" and Barry Meier's book "Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America's Opioid Epidemic," which both explore how Purdue Pharma — led by the Sackler family — obscured the truth about their product OxyContin.

Are the Characters in "Painkiller" Based on Real People?

"Painkiller" is a scripted, fictional series, but it takes inspiration from real-life events as it traces the rise and fall of the Sackler family's empire. Most of its main characters are fictional, including Edie Flowers (Uzo Aduba), a lawyer from Virginia who, in the series, plays a key role in investigating the Sacklers' empire. Another one of its main plotlines follows Glen Kryger, a fictional mechanic who gets hooked on opioids after an injury, and a third centers West Duchovny as a fictional Purdue Pharma salesperson named Shannon Shaeffer.

Each one of these characters, while not based on real people, is a composite of different real-life stories. "Edie represents the front line," director Pete Berg told Netflix on July 11. "At that time when OxyContin was just starting to be a thing and law enforcement all over the country was starting to see deaths, crimes and pill mills popping up, there was a group of law enforcement who were the first wave to see the tragedy beginning to unfold. They then had to start trying to figure out, 'Well, what is going on here?'"

Some of the characters featured in the series are very real, though, such as Purdue Pharma executives Richard Sackler (Matthew Broderick) and Mortimer Sackler (John Rothman). Meanwhile, Tyler Ritter plays Edie's supervisor US Attorney John Brownlee, who really did work to successfully convict Purdue Pharma of misbranding OxyContin in 2007, a story that formed the basis of Hulu's 2021 series "Dopesick."

The True Events That Inspired "Painkiller"

"Painkiller" traces the Sackler family's story from the beginning, starting with brothers Arthur, Mortimer, and Raymond Sackler, who bought a company called Purdue Frederick in 1952, per the New Yorker. Arthur quickly realized that there was real money to be made in marketing pills to the public, though, and one of his early successes was Valium, which became a phenomenon when it was released in 1963. Shortly after Arthur's death in 1987, Mortimer and Raymond took over the company, which was renamed Purdue Pharma in 1991.

By 1996, one of Purdue's main revenue sources, a pill called MS Contin that was intended for dying cancer patients, was failing to turn significant profits. That year, though, Purdue developed and patented a version of MS Contin called OxyContin. Per the Financial Times, Richard saw potential in the product and decided to focus the company's energy on it, declaring that his marketing approach would trigger "a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition."

Purdue branded OxyContin as a drug that could stop all kinds of pain, from arthritis to back aches. They claimed it was effective for 12 hours at a time, and also said it was not addictive unless patients already had addictive personalities, per the National Library of Medicine. Their marketing tactics included flying doctors to expensive conferences and encouraging sales reps to form close bonds with doctors, and their approach was successful, netting $3 billion by 2010, per the Los Angeles Times, and earning them a total of $10 billion overall, per NPR.

It soon became apparent that OxyContin's effects wore off before the 12-hour mark, though, and that it was far more addictive than advertised. Soon, many patients found themselves hooked on a drug their doctors had told them was safe — and yet Purdue continued to push the product, releasing higher dosages and continuing to significantly downplay the drug's addictive potential in their marketing efforts, as documented by the LA Times. OxyContin's success inspired other companies to begin releasing similar (and similarly addictive) products, and this unleashed an opioid epidemic that would claim hundreds of thousands of lives.

In 2007, the US Justice Department launched a criminal investigation that culminated in Purdue's three top executives pleading guilty to fraud for minimizing the dangers of OxyContin in their marketing tactics. They were ultimately fined $635 million, per the LA Times. In 2022, the family agreed to pay $6 billion as part of a lawsuit with multiple attorneys general, per Reuters, though the settlement would also grant the family immunity from current or future civil lawsuits. However, the settlement was temporarily blocked by the Supreme Court on Aug. 10, per CNN. (The Sackler family has admitted no wrongdoing.)

Meanwhile, per the CDC, the opioid crisis cost the US $1 trillion in 2017, and more than 564,000 people have died from an overdose involving opioids between 1999 and 2020, according to the CDC, and death rates have quintupled since 1999. The first wave of the crisis began in the 1990s with the overprescription of synthetic opioids like OxyContin, while drugs like heroin and fentanyl rose to prominence in the 2010. Per the CDC, opioids were the cause of nearly 75 percent of the 91,799 drug overdose deaths that occurred in the US in 2020.

The crisis wasn't entirely caused by the Sacklers alone, though, a fact that "Painkiller" executive producer Eric Newman wanted to emphasize in the series. "It's certainly not just [about] the Sacklers," he said. "It's the political machine. It's the pharmaceutical industrial complex. You can't understand the epidemic unless you look at all of the participants. The people who did it, the people who let it happen, the people who suffered from it — and the people who blew the whistle on it."

It's also hard to understand the human cost of the opioid epidemic by reading statistics alone, but "Painkiller" also tries to highlight the real-life stories of people harmed by the crisis, and at the start of every episode it features a real person who has been personally affected by OxyContin. First, they read a disclaimer reminding the audience that the characters in the show aren't real — but then, briefly, they tell their own story, reminding viewers that all-too-real events inspired every part of what they're about to watch.

"Painkiller" premieres on Netflix on Aug. 10.