Once, there was Dante’s Peak versus Volcano (Dante’s Peak), Braveheart versus Rob Roy (Braveheart), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert versus To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (tie?), Kalifornia versus Natural Born Killers (Kalifornia, you heard me), Deep Impact versus Armageddon (Deep Impact), and, of course, The Truman Show versus EdTV (The Truman Show).
And now comes Hulu’s Dopesick, which is somehow almost two years old, and Netflix’s Painkiller, two television series about the opioid epidemic and the rise and fall of the Sackler family. Both series come from writers/directors who began their careers as actors. Dopesick comes from Danny Strong (Empire, Game Change, but also Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and Painkiller comes from Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, all those blue-collar Mark Wahlberg movies).
Both series also follow a similar structure: There’s the rise of the opioid epidemic, along with two or three characters who represent its victims; there’s the Sackler family and Richard Sackler’s desire to win the approval of his dead uncle, take over the family business, and make Purdue Pharma billions of dollars, regardless of the consequences; there are the pharmaceutical salespeople who pushed the product to doctors knowing its effects; and then there is the investigation into the Sacklers and the efforts to tie the epidemic to one company. Dopesick is based on the Beth Macy book of the same name, while Painkiller is based on the New Yorker article “The Family That Built the Empire of Pain,” by Patrick Radden Keefe, the guy who wrote the book on the topic, Empire of Pain.
They are essentially the same story framed in similar ways, but Dopesick is easily the better of the two, and not just because it came first. It’s also not solely because Peter Berg’s direction is often hacky, particularly during the conversations between Richard Sackler and the ghost of his uncle, played terribly by the usually reliable Clark Gregg in Painkiller.
In terms of casting, Dopesick has the upper hand. It’s not close. They both play characters whose addictions are so terrible that death seems like a relief. However, would you rather see Kaitlyn Dever (Justified) portray a lesbian blue-collar miner from a conservative family who is injured in a coal mine explosion, or Taylor Kitsch as a blue-collar family man who gets injured in a freak accident at his auto shop? Kitsch is good in Painkiller—probably the best I’ve seen him since Friday Night Lights—but he is no match for Dever, who earned an Emmy nomination for her role. It doesn’t hurt that Dever’s parents are also played by the brilliantly venomous Ray McKinnon and the heartbreaking Mare Winningham.
What about the pharmaceutical reps? In Netflix’s Painkiller, we meet Shannon Shaefer, played by West Duchovny (daughter of David Duchovny and Téa Leoni), whose nagging conscience bugs her even as she’s caught up in the hustle. In Dopesick, Will Poulter portrays a pharmaceutical rep whose nagging conscience also troubles him, even as he’s caught up in the hustle. Both characters ultimately agree to testify against the Sacklers after tragedy strikes. Again: no contest. Will Poulter is the superior pharma rep and has an Emmy nomination to prove it.
One significant difference between the two series is the character of the prescribing doctor. Michael Keaton plays this role in Dopesick and adds an element that sets the two shows apart. He’s phenomenal. He reluctantly prescribes Oxycontin after being persuaded by Poulter’s pharma rep, but after an injury, learns of its dangers through his own addiction. Not only was he nominated for an Emmy but he won it.
Meanwhile, Painkiller features Matthew Broderick as its Richard Sackler. He’s fine, but he cannot compete with Michael Stuhlbarg, who also received an Emmy nomination for his role. Stuhlbarg is Richard Sackler. Broderick is Ferris Bueller playing Richard Sackler.
Both shows hit a roadblock in the form of U.S. Attorney John Brownlee—Tyler Ritter in Painkiller and Jake McDorman in Dopesick. In both cases, the investigating characters provide most of the exposition. Uzo Aduba is great in Painkiller—perhaps even Emmy-worthy—but mostly serves as a narrator. Peter Sarsgaard and Rosario Dawson in Dopesick, on the other hand, provide exposition through active investigation, making it more dynamic and interesting. They are the engines that keep Dopesick moving.
Ultimately, it’s no contest. Dopesick is an excellent series, an 8.5 out of 10, while Painkiller merits a 6 out of 10. Dopesick is a series to savor and watch closely, while Painkiller is a Netflix series better suited to being consumed.