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'Painkiller' director thinks everyone will take Netflix series' message personally

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A new dramatic series on Netflix tells the story of the rise of Purdue Pharma through its drug OxyContin, then the addiction crisis that followed. Each episode of "Painkiller" begins with a disclaimer. At first, it seems like the typical this story is based on true events, but some things have been fictionalized. And then you realize, oh, wait, the person giving me this disclaimer is a relative of someone who lost their loved one to the opioid epidemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PAINKILLER")

JENNIFER TREJO-ADAMS: What wasn't fictionalized is that my son, at the age of 15, was prescribed OxyContin. And at the age of 32, he died all alone in the freezing cold in a gas station parking lot. And we miss him.

FADEL: It's a message that Director Pete Berg felt that just about everyone would take personally.

PETE BERG: I mean, I have friends who've died from opioids, and OxyContin specifically. While we were making the show, hardly a day went by when a crew member didn't come up and say, you know, my brother, my mother, my friend, my friend's child. It's very hard to find someone that has not been directly touched by opioids.

FADEL: Now, this series traces the start of the painkiller OxyContin. And it's narrated by a lawyer in the U.S. attorney's office in Roanoke, Edie Flowers, played by Uzo Aduba. Why tell the story through her eyes?

BERG: You know, it's very complicated to unpack sort of the how we got here of it all. You know, it started back in the '50s with Dr. Arthur Sackler, who sort of was the architect of almost all of this. He was one of the first to realize that you could market these drugs the same way fast food restaurants market hamburgers, a skill that he passed onto his nephew, Richard Sackler, who is played by Matthew Broderick in our show. And Uzo's character, Edie Flowers, was a very helpful character in explaining this very dense web to an audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PAINKILLER")

UZO ADUBA: (As Edie) This isn't just about a pill that killed a lot of people. It's bigger than that. No, this thing, this plague, it started when someone in that family realized that the big money in medicine was in sales and marketing.

FADEL: The way it's depicted, with the pharmaceutical reps giving out these stuffed plushy toys that are shaped like a pill - I mean, that stuffy toy becomes its own character in this show. If you could, talk about that and the marketing that you were trying to depict.

BERG: What Purdue did, which is what a lot of other companies do, where they hire young, attractive college students and send them out to, you know, small-town doctors all over this country, and getting these doctors to buy into OxyContin and start prescribing it. And Purdue treated these reps to parties and, you know, Florida vacations. And they were incentivized extremely well to sell higher-milligram doses of OxyContin. It, to me, felt almost cult-like when I saw the sales rep retreats in, you know, the Caribbean and Florida. The kind of insanity of the entire event, you know, led us to those OxyContin plushies, these giant dancing OxyContin pills.

FADEL: Something that stuck with me is this scene of Matthew Broderick playing Richard Sackler as he hatches the plan to create and then market and market and market this drug.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PAINKILLER")

MATTHEW BRODERICK: (As Richard) All of human behavior is essentially comprised of two things, running away from pain and toward pleasure. If we become the gatekeepers for everyone who wants to get away from pain, then we have changed the world.

BERG: He understood that what he was selling was going to take away a lot of pain and was going to be very, very appealing to hundreds of thousands of people. If you look at it strictly from a capitalistic perspective, you know, he hit a home run. If you put any basic morality into the equation, it was sinister.

FADEL: Edie Flowers, she also sort of is driven by a personal story of a different epidemic that destroyed her family. And she discovers that the oxy epidemic is following a similar pattern of increased crime, homelessness. I want to play this clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PAINKILLER")

ADUBA: (As Edie) Those little Purdue Malibu Barbies are doing the exact same thing as every crack dealer in every corner in America, except they are getting rewarded for it, getting made rich off of it. And my brother is in a prison cell right now rotting. What is the difference?

FADEL: And yet, she can't figure out how to prosecute it, right?

BERG: Yeah. I mean, it certainly enrages her that what was considered a crime and real degenerate behavior when it was crack cocaine is being rewarded financially. But it became clear that Purdue was lying about how addictive they knew the drug was and how many problems were being caused by the drug in terms of pill mills being set up around the country, people crushing it up, kids using it recreationally, all this kind of stuff. And then what Purdue was able to do very effectively was just sort of influence enough powerful people so that even when prosecutors kind of had them, they were very elusive.

FADEL: In real life, The New York Times reported on a Justice Department memo where some federal prosecutors wanted to bring felony charges against Purdue Pharma executives, including members of the Sackler family, perhaps. But that never happened. Instead, some company executives pleaded guilty to misdemeanors. And in the series, you end on a deal being cut. Did you want to raise questions about why this company and executives at companies like this never faced more serious charges?

BERG: Right. Well, I mean, I think that we present the company as being very, very talented at avoiding prosecution. But that doesn't mean that they've escaped the karmic wrath of what they've done. You know, Richard Sackler, wherever he is today, has to live with the fact that his name has been taken off the walls of the Met and the Guggenheim and the Louvre and medical schools around the country. That is probably more hurtful and damaging than all of the financial payments that the Sacklers have paid out.

FADEL: Pete Berg is the director and co-producer of the Netflix series "Painkiller." Thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.

BERG: OK, take care.

FADEL: The Sacklers have denied any criminal wrongdoing but agreed to pay roughly $6 billion in exchange for immunity from future civil lawsuits, a deal that's still pending in the courts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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