Is Shannon Schaeffer From Painkiller Based on a Real Person?

Is Shannon Schaeffer From Painkiller Based on a Real Person?

preview for Painkiller - Official Trailer (Netflix)

Netflix’s Painkiller is the latest drama series to explore the impact of the opioid crisis in the United States, following Dopesick on Hulu. Based on the book Pain Killer by Barry Meier and the New York Times article ‘The Family That Built an Empire of Pain,’ it focuses specifically on the Sacklers, the real-life dynasty behind Pardue Pharma, the company that was largely responsible for a rise in doctors prescribing the highly addictive OxyContin.

The show tackles the crisis from multiple angles, following a wide-ranging ensemble cast of characters, including Uzo Aduba as attorney Edie Flowers, whose attempts to build a case against the Sackler family and Pardue Pharma form the narrative backbone of the series.

One storyline involves Shannon Schaeffer, a college graduate played by West Duchovny who takes a sales representative job at Pardue and is initially excited by the prospect of making good money and starting a high-powered career.

“I think a lot of people are going to see themselves in her,” said Duchovny. “A theme for her is [the desire] for success and trying to do good and grappling with the pressures of money and how that changes you.”

Shannon’s role within the company is to encourage doctors to prescribe higher doses of OxyContin to patients while downplaying the risk of addiction, in order to secure higher payouts from insurance companies. At the beginning, she is enthusiastic about the work, but over the six episodes of Painkiller, Shannon grapples with the morality of the harm she has caused.

“I think [Shannon is] not only drawn to Purdue because of the money, but because she thinks that she can help people and do good,” Duchovny explained.

After taking OxyContin herself for the first time and walking into a swimming pool, Shannon comes to the realization that she needs to get out of Pardue and make amends, and her storyline ends with her aiding the U.S. Attorney’s office in their investigation.

painkiller, netflix, shannon schaeffer


Was Shannon Schaeffer a real person?

Yes and no. Each episode of the show opens with the disclaimer that “certain characters, names, incidents, locations, and dialogue have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes,” and while certain figures in Painkiller are transparently based on real people, such as Matthew Broderick’s Richard Sackler, others are composite characters inspired by multiple individuals.

Shannon Schaeffer is one such character, who was written into the show to illustrate the methods Pardue used to increase sales of OxyContin, and to put a human face on Pardue’s profit-driven motivations. Her story plays out very closely to real life: Pardue Pharma sales reps were highly incentivized, and those who successfully convinced doctors to prescribe higher milligram doses of OxyContin received bonuses sometimes outweighing their yearly salary. Shannon specifically may not have ever existed, but plenty of people like her did.

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Philip Ellis

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.

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