The Story 'The Pharmacist' Can’t Tell
It’s easy to see, from the opening minutes of the new four-part Netflix show The Pharmacist, why its directors took one meeting with Dan Schneider and decided to structure a true-crime series around him. Schneider is an affable eccentric in a button-down shirt, an avenger who likens himself to Clark Griswold. He’s the stuff documentary dreams are made of. (“Don’t be an actor; you’re a real guy,” an offscreen voice tells him in the first scene, breaking the fourth wall immediately to emphasize Schneider’s stranger-than-fiction credentials.) His story is framed as a classic David-versus-Goliath showdown between a humble Everydad and a giant pharmaceutical corporation trafficking pills and greed across his home state. The setup demands a victory, and The Pharmacist delivers: A drug dealer is arrested, a pill mill is shut down. But how much of a victory is it, really?
Watching The Pharmacist, I kept getting caught between the series’ fealty to the conventions of a Netflix true-crime binge—the raspy, ominous score; the suspenseful cliff-hangers; the neat resolution—and the messiness of the story it was telling, one in which grief drove a man to dangerous, provocative, and sometimes harassing behavior, and for all his efforts, the “justice” he found meant a poor black teenager went to jail while Purdue Pharma made $35 billion in sales. This isn’t a narrative you can do justice to within a genre better suited to serial-killer profiles and inveterate scammers. It’s too complicated, too frustrating, too open-ended. “Did I do the right thing?” Schneider asks in the final episode, a question the series doesn’t seem to remotely want to answer.
Complicating things is the fact that The Pharmacist is really two stories in one. The first is one of devastating familial tragedy: In 1999, Schneider’s son Danny was killed while reportedly trying to buy crack cocaine in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward. Finding the police uninterested, Schneider decided to hunt down his son’s killer himself, stalking the neighborhood, bombarding strangers with phone calls, and finally badgering a woman to testify even though doing so forced her into witness protection. Along the way, he recorded everything. Truly, everything. The series is stuffed with archival elements: camcorder footage of Danny as a child, phone calls Schneider made to the New Orleans Police Department, even a tape of Schneider and his wife sobbing together after Danny’s death. (Listening to the latter feels uncomfortably like eavesdropping on the most excruciating moments of someone’s life.)
If Danny’s death were the sole focus of The Pharmacist, there might be more time to unpack some of the story’s snarls and the subtext of what happened to him: the roots of his addiction, the context of the crack epidemic amid urban white flight, even the motives of his killer. (Remarkably, even though the directors interview the dealer who shot Danny, they don’t seem compelled to ask why he did it, leaving the Schneider family’s search for closure unresolved.) But the loss of a child apparently isn’t uncommon enough to sustain a four-part series, and so The Pharmacist quickly turns to what happened next. Schneider, after taking time to grieve, returned to working part-time at a pharmacy in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. There, he began to notice clusters of young, seemingly healthy people filling prescriptions for high doses of OxyContin. This was in 2000, only a few years after Purdue Pharma had launched the drug amid fanfare as a seemingly revolutionary treatment for chronic pain. The Pharmacist’s directors, Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason (Fyre Fraud), include snippets of marketing material from the time, in which serene, glowing middle-aged Americans evangelize all the ways in which opioids have changed their life.
The series is at its most useful and revelatory in moments like these. The story of how the opioid epidemic began isn’t new, but The Pharmacist strikingly lays it out through the lens of one community, and how a crisis was enabled by different layers of human greed. The most resonant element the directors draw out is how the business of selling drugs is identical regardless of who’s doing it, even if the legal protection they enjoy is different. At the top of the pyramid are Purdue and other pharmaceutical companies. Purdue, in particular, is indicted in truly damning fashion by one of its former sales representatives, Chris Davis, who reveals that for all its talk of “appropriate usage,” the company knew that the kind of explosive sales growth it craved could only come from overconsumption. Lower down are sales representatives like Davis, chasing six-figure bonuses by courting “the right doctors.” Below him are those unscrupulous physicians, who dole out scrips for cash and reap the financial rewards. Then come the pharmacists, some swayed enough by the prospect of a $100 profit on a bottle of Oxy not to try to intervene. At the bottom are the unauthorized dealers, the only ones who ever seem to face consequences.
Up against this juggernaut of commerce and human frailty, Schneider may as well have been a lone fisherman trying to reel in a whale. Still, he was obsessive and tenacious enough to try. Seeing his son in the teenagers and 20-somethings picking up prescriptions, Schneider began interviewing them with a recorder in his pocket, asking them who their doctor was and sweetly trying to convince them that all they really needed was ibuprofen. He soon established that virtually every OxyContin scrip was coming from the same woman, a former pediatrician who’d set up a late-night practice in a part of town more commonly frequented for sex shops and motels that rent by the hour. So he began to build a case against her with the same intensity with which he’d chased his son’s killer, filming lines of people outside the clinic after midnight, pestering the FBI and DEA with calls, and gathering as much evidence as he could at work, to his boss’s displeasure.
Blessed are the whistle-blowers, The Pharmacist suggests. The reason the opioid crisis took so long to become a national news story, it argues, is that the people witnessing it on the front lines were steps removed from power and unable to make themselves heard. Schneider insisted on telling everyone what he saw, alienating law enforcement, federal agents, members of his community, and the man who signed his paychecks in the process. He was a good man trying to do the right thing. But the triumphant framework of the show clashes awkwardly with any analysis of how loaded the game was from the beginning. Every pill mill that was shut down simply pushed addicts to illegal street drugs, on which they were far more likely to overdose. While some doctors went to prison for abusing their ability to prescribe painkillers, no Purdue executives did. The Sackler family are richer to the tune of $13 billion thanks to OxyContin; that money helps them aggressively fight the lawsuits piling up.
This isn’t to say that Schneider’s story isn’t compelling (although it was more efficiently laid out in a Times-Picayune story from 2017), or that The Pharmacist doesn’t have moments of insight. But the popularity of easily digestible true-crime narratives has led to a glut of stories such as this one, ambitious and rote and unable to indulge in the skepticism or the soul-searching that subjects as consuming as the opioid epidemic merit. The genre’s substantial weaknesses—its preference for white victims, its reliance on murder for dramatic high stakes, its lack of care and attention for the people whose deaths it sensationalizes—are all on display in The Pharmacist, particularly in the story of Danny’s death. The narrative is sloppy when it needs to be meticulous, leaving loose ends fraying. And for all that Schneider talks about a “tunnel of hope” in the series, the ending reveals how little there is to be had. Since he started speaking out against OxyContin in 2001, a title card states, more than 400,000 Americans have died from opioid overdoses, a number so staggering it dwarfs anything that a single pharmacist could possibly hope to achieve.