Like 2015’s film The Big Short, the six-episode Netflix series Painkiller takes on a serious, unsexy topic and treats it with an occasional prankish spin designed to keep our eyes peeled and our pulses stirred. The subject of Short was (yawn) the 2008 recession resulting from sketchy financial practices. Writer-director Adam McKay perked things up with fillips like Margot Robbie reclining in a bubble bath and addressing the camera to explain subprime mortgage bonds to us.
In Painkiller, the subject is the opioid epidemic, brainstormed and marketed by the Sackler family through their Purdue Pharma. Oxycontin’s mastermind is Richard Sackler, played here by Matthew Broderick in a semicomic, absentminded performance that doesn’t quite jell. His nemesis is Edie (a strong Uzo Aduba), a driven, antisocial investigator from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Richmond, Virginia, who has seen firsthand the ravages of Purdue’s drugs and wants to find a way to stop their abuse. In the everyman role that dramatizes the insidious nature of opioids, Taylor Kitsch plays Glen, an auto mechanic in North Carolina whose work injury leads him into the overprescribed hell of addiction.
Among ways Painkiller tries to perk up the grim narrative in Margot-in-a-bathtub style is by introducing the energetic blonde duo Britt (Dina Shihabi) and her protegee Shannon (West Duchovny, baby daughter of dad David and mom Tea Leoni). They’re Purdue reps, a legion of champagne-swilling sirens, mobilized against the wounded working poor living along the mossy spine of Appalachia. These girls are on a well-compensated mission to seduce (almost literally) the region’s doctors to write Oxy scripts for their patients.
For the first couple of hours, Painkiller is, um, painlessly watchable under the hand of yeoman director Peter Berg. Each episode is prefaced by testimonials from regular people, telling us about the loved ones they’ve lost to this needless drug crisis. (Those are the show’s strongest moments, really.)
If you’re a Hulu subscriber, you probably know the streaming service got to the opioid catastrophe sooner, and better, in Dopesick. The 2021 series earned a bunch of Emmy nominations and a win for star Michael Keaton. It wouldn’t hurt you to watch both shows. There can’t be enough telling of the story of the Sackler family’s calculated exploitation and murder-for-profit of huge swaths of the nation.
PRIME VIDEO: Harlan Coben’s Shelter
After peddling his paranoid thrillers for years on Netflix (Stay Close, The Woods, The Stranger, Safe and several more), novelist-turned-content-generator Harlan Coben relocates his conveyor belt to Amazon. And he switches the focus from adults to teens in peril.
Co-created with daughter Charlotte, his YA-slanted Harlan Coben’s Shelter (yep, that’s the official name) focuses on Mickey (Jaden Michael). After living with his parents overseas for a few years, his entry in a new U.S. high school is made even more fraught by the bizarre auto-crash death of his father Brad (Kristoffer Polaha).
Or did his dad die? The crone who lives in a crumbling house and known in town as the Bat Lady (Tovah Feldshuh) tells Mickey that he didn’t. Before the kid can figure out what she means, another mystery engulfs him: the disappearance of his new classmate crush, Ashley. Where’d she go? And why does everything seem to lead back to Bat Lady’s creepy house and the disappearance there 27 years ago of a kid who was a classmate of Mickey’s dad? It’s a breathless Coben plot machine, that’s why.
Mickey dives into mysteries (the remainder of the series’ eight episodes drop each Friday through September 22) aided by school outcasts, the geeky Spoon (Adrian Greensmith) and the nonbinary, obligatory goth girl Ema (Abby Corrigan). They make for a manufactured but cute trio. On top of the usual school travails — bullying in the classroom and on the basketball court, where Mickey excels — the kids’ search for Ashley leads them into a world full of ominous, lurking men distinguished by face tattoos, beards and sunglasses.
In later episodes, Mickey infiltrates the sort of all-hours dance/sex club that dwells in the parallel, nighttime reality that teenage Kyle MacLachlan got sucked into in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Don’t get your hopes up, though. The Cobens’ vision lacks any of the gorgeous, threatening weirdness of even Lynch’s most throwaway flick. In a bid for sexual inclusiveness, maybe, Shelter gives us two gay couples, both of them female and both very safe.
Where the series gets genuinely dangerous is in its casual use of a couple of loaded dramatic tropes. In the early episodes, Shelter spins a fictional tale of a savior of Jewish children during the Holocaust. There’s something noxious about using a real-life historic atrocity for easy melodrama. The child-saving theme continues in the later episodes, when sex trafficking of kids is uncovered as the show’s dark secret. Don’t get me wrong – human trafficking of any sort is an obscenity across the globe. But exaggerated/politicized conspiracies about child endangerment have led to a great deal of trouble in the real world (anybody remember Pizzagate?). Shelter made me wonder if the Cobens, in their need to keep the conveyor belt loaded, are looking for new plot material in irresponsible corners of their family factory.
MAX: Full Circle
For an equally convoluted but smarter conspiracy thriller, consider director Steven Soderbergh’s and writer Ed Solomon’s Full Circle. The six-episode Max series finished rolling out at the end of July, but it’s worth a second look. (It might help if, like me, you watch with the subtitles on and maybe a notepad and pen beside you to keep the plot untangled as you watch.)
Like Shelter, Circle centers on an abduction — in this case, that of Jared (Ethan Stoddard), teenage grandson of a ponytailed, celebrity chef Jeff McCusker (Dennis Quaid, overacting) and son of Jeff’s daughter Sam (Claire Danes), who helps run her dad’s multimedia empire, and her husband Derek (Timothy Olyphant, underused here by playing a schmuck).
Jared disappears from the family’s Manhattan apartment one night, target of a complex kidnapping scheme by Guyana native and shady businesswoman Savitri Mahabir (CCH Pounder, quietly terrifying as a genially optimistic murderer). Mrs. Mahabir holds a longtime grudge against the McCusker clan that goes beyond monetary motives. She enlists her tightly-wound nephew, Aked (Jharrel Jerome, in a very different performance from his gentle giant in Prime’s I’m a Virgo), to oversee Jared’s kidnapping. For that, the young man taps a couple of naïve Guyana immigrants, Louis (Gerald Jones) and Xavier (Sheyi Cole).
But following a mixup too tricky to explain here, instead of Jared, they kidnap another teen, Nicky (Lucian Zanes), who has been shadowing Jared and who delays telling his captors they’ve made a mistake. Like I said, it’s complicated. Helping us figure it all out is a brassy, bipolar Mel (Zazie Beetz of Atlanta), an agent for the Postal Inspection Service (yes, that’s a thing). She’s sniffing around a truly evil racket run by Mrs. Mahabir (involving life insurance policies and vulnerable street people) when she gets wind of this bizarre kidnapping case, which the McCuskers initially try to hide from authorities. The hard-charging, ethically compromised Mel is probably the most fascinating person in Circle, and Beetz relishes the role. You both admire and want to slap her. (That’s certainly true for her immediate superior, played by comedian Jim Gaffigan in a non-comic role.)
As director, cinematographer and editor Soderbergh does his patented professional job, letting his camera prowl through elegantly chilly apartments or the sun-bleached desolation of Guyana’s busy streets. Full Circle requires a bit of a mental workout as you keep the characters and plot lines connecting, but, unlike with Shelter, in the end, it’s worth it.
PRIME VIDEO: Red, White & Royal Blue
The icing on this month’s streaming column is literal. The romantic comedy Red, White & Royal Blue opens with Alex (Taylor Zakhar Perez) and Henry (Nicholas Galitzine) sprawled on the floor under a collapsed wedding cake. The wedding is for the heir to the British throne, who happens to be (Prince) Henry’s brother. Alex is there, prior to the cake wreckage, as a representative of the president of the United States, who happens to be his mother, Ellen (Uma Thurman with a hilariously exaggerated Texas accent).
Leaving his diplomatic mission in tatters (or frosted crumbs) Alex returns to D.C., where mom puts him right back on a plane to make photo op amends with Henry as part of her own charm campaign to win a second term in the Oval Office. Since this is a rom-com, the men’s initial rancor toward each other crumbles. After many long-distance nights of WhatsApp flirtation, the boy prince and the first boy become boyfriends. But will their public duties — in a mild echo of the classic Hepburn-Peck romance Roman Holiday — keep them from each others’ well-toned arms and their potential happily ever after? Thanks to some clever dialogue by playwright-director Matthew Lopez (Broadway’s The Inheritance), adapting the material from Casey McQuiston’s book, the movie spins along painlessly.
There’s not much of a message to gain from Blue, except maybe that young men with extreme privilege and good gym memberships look great without their shirts. The movie is as proudly escapist, bubble-headed and as forgettable as so many heterosexual rom-coms ahead of it. That’s progress, I guess. When the president is not only a woman but a Democrat from Texas, you know you’re safely in the realm of fantasy.
NETFLIX: How to Become a Cult Leader
Speaking of red, white and blue, as our internet-heavy, news-driven, conspiracy-riddled world (see Shelter, above) marches us ever faster toward insanity, consider Netflix’s tongue-in-cheek but fact-based How to Become a Cult Leader. Never dryer in his deadpan delivery, Peter Dinklage narrates the six-part documentary, with each chapter dedicated to a particularly loathsome/charismatic manipulator.
We start with America’s sweetheart, Charles Manson, and end globally with Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church. The in-between chapters introduce us to Jim Jones, Jaime Gomez, Marshall Applewhite and Tokyo subway gasser Shoko Asahara. The playfully snarky tone of the series might feel a little too irreverent for some viewers, but, for me, it felt like a piece of the crazy planet we’re living on.
That’s it for now, folks. I’ll be back next month for another roundup. In the meantime, enjoy whatever you’re watching, and make sure that wonderful person who came into your life recently isn’t the leader of a cult.
Steve Murray is an award-winning journalist and playwright who has covered the arts as a reporter and critic for many years. Catch up to Steve’s previous Streaming columns here.