The factually-based Netflix drama miniseries Painkiller is a dramatized version of the case against the Sackler family and their company, Purdue Pharma, examining the role that they played in the rise of the highly addictive OxyContin being prescribed as a pain medication, leading to the devastating opioid crisis.
In the show, a number of fictionalized, composite characters are used to illustrate the human toll of the crisis, from sales rep Shannon Schaeffer (West Duchovny) who is financially incentivized to downplay the addictive nature of the drug, to Glen Kryger (Taylor Kitsch), who becomes hooked on OxyContin after an injury at work, to attorney Edie Flowers (Uzo Aduba), who is investigating Purdue.
However, several of the characters in the show are also directly inspired by real people, including Matthew Broderick as Purdue Pharma president Richard Sackler. Another real person portrayed in Painkiller is Dr. Curtis Wright, the FDA official who was responsible for approving Purdue with approval to sell OxyContin.
Played by series creator Noah Harpster, Curtis Wright eventually signs off on OxyContin.
“Painkiller is about the several moments when this epidemic could have been stopped,” said Harpster upon the show’s release. “That’s what really grabbed us with this story .. looking at all these moments when a different decision—sometimes made by one person, sometimes made by an entire organization—could have changed the course of this epidemic and saved hundreds of thousands of lives.”
Dr. Wright’s and by extension the FDA’s sign-off on the highly addictive OxyContin has been frequently cited in the Sacklers’ defense. However, as the New Yorker‘s Patrick Radden Keefe (who authored the story on which Painkiller is partially based) reports, a 2006 internal government memo which was made public in 2019 found that the way Wright finessed the Purdue application through the FDA approval process was unorthodox.
What happened to Curtis Wright?
Wright approved OxyContin for sale in 1995. Shortly after, he resigned from the FDA and took a job with the pharmaceutical company Alador. Then, in 1998, he was hired by Purdue Pharma as their director of medical research, where he was paid three times his previous salary.
In a 2018 deposition, Wright maintained that he had no direct contact with Purdue during his time at the FDA, and his hiring three years later, after being approached by a recruiter, was unrelated. As of that year, he was no longer working for Purdue, but as an independent consultant.
Philip Ellis is News Editor at Men’s Health, covering fitness, pop culture, sex and relationships, and LGBTQ+ issues. His work has appeared in GQ, Teen Vogue, Man Repeller and MTV, and he is the author of Love & Other Scams.