In the Biblical story of David and Goliath a small Israelite shepherd boy takes on the Philistine giant Goliath. In Amazon Prime’s fourth season of Goliath, it is the often-troubled lawyer Billy McBride (played by an excellent Billy Bob Thorton) who through eight episodes battles George Zax (J. K. Simmons), head of the Opioid-producing fictional corporation Zax Pharma, which is modeled on the real-life Purdue Pharma (see below).
As the chief villain Simmons is terrific. He promotes himself as the “Pain Killer.” Near the beginning of Episode 2 he plays (clad in top hat and bow tie like in an old Hollywood musical) the piano and dances while singing
♪ Life shouldn't be ♪
♪ Only misery ♪
♪ Endless agony and anguish ♪
♪ Life should be more ♪
♪ Than something to endure ♪
♪ You can't just lie in bed and languish ♪
♪ So if you can barely bear existence ♪
♪ Perhaps I can be of some assistance ♪
♪ They call me the Pain Killer ♪
♪ There's no boo-boo that I can't fix ♪
♪ Yes, I'm the Pain Killer ♪
♪ I just reach into my bag of tricks ♪
♪ So pain, pain, go away ♪
♪ 'Cause I'm the Pain Killer and I'm here to stay, hey ♪
♪ It's plain to see, you're hurting desperately ♪
♪ And according to my calculations ♪
♪ It's been quite a while since you even cracked a smile ♪
♪ We need to remedy that situation ♪
♪ Pronto ♪
♪ 'Cause just giving up's out of the question ♪
♪ So please allow me to make one suggestion ♪
♪ You should call the old Pain Killer ♪
♪ Also known as your new best friend ♪
♪ Yes, I'm the Pain Killer ♪
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♪ And I'll get you high on life again ♪
♪ So, pain, pain ♪
♪ Go away ♪
♪ 'Cause I'm the Pain Killer and I'm here to stay ♪
But lawyer McBride more accurately states (in a courtroom scene in Episode 8), “George Zax is not in the pain-relief business. George Zax is in the addiction business. No matter how many people it hurts or kills. And he's sitting there a multi, multibillionaire. But it's not enough for him, you see. He wants more and more and more money. That's what it's all about, is money.”
Almost three years ago on the LA Progressive site, in my “The Opioid Crisis and the Need for Progressivism," I wrote that in Purdue Pharma’s marketing of OxyContin the company “put profits first. Before any ethical considerations. Before the interests of people. Even if it killed them.”
Part of my essay was based on a Patrick Radden Keefe article in the The New Yorker and a later PBS NewsHour interview with him. In his article he mentioned that “since 1999, two hundred thousand Americans have died from overdoses related to OxyContin and other prescription opioids.” More recently (this past July) he wrote of Purdue “profiting from a public health crisis that has resulted in the death of half a million Americans.” And earlier this year his book Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty offered a scathing portrayal of the chief family that benefited from OxyContin profits. Figures presented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2020 indicate similar dire results. And the number of U. S. drug overdose deaths in the 12-month period ending March 2021 reached a new high of more than 96,000.
Meanwhile, as with the fictional Zax Pharma and George Zax in Goliath, Purdue Pharma finally had its legal reckoning, though in Purdue’s case it was not in a dramatic court-with-jury trial as in Goliath, but as a result of a bankruptcy settlement approved by a federal judge.
Even though Purdue filed for bankruptcy in September 2019, 49 states, Washington, D.C., and various U.S. territories sued the corporation for $2.15 trillion. According to the settlement approved on September 1, 2021 Purdue agreed to pay over $4 billion, with the Sacklers also forfeiting ownership of the company. Although about 40 states accepted the agreement, the rest did not primarily because the Sacklers, hundreds of their associates, and other parts of the Sackler financial empire were granted "releases" from liability to any further civil suits. California and some additional states, as well as others such as the Justice Department’s U.S. Trustee Program, appealed the ruling. Thus, the final judicial outcome of the Purdue case is still undetermined.
Similarly, the case of Sax Pharma in Goliath is not finally settled in its last episode despite its jury’s verdict--the details of which I won’t reveal to you--because George Sax tells lawyer McBride, “I'm gonna appeal and I'm gonna win.”
Without exhaustive research most TV watchers will not know how closely Goliath parallels the Purdue Pharma case, but the series displays plenty of artistic license and creativity. Its setting is mainly in San Francisco--the last episode ends with lines from Jack Kerouac:
♪ There was a little alley in San Francisco ♪
♪ Back of the Southern Pacific station at 3rd and Townsend ♪
♪ In redbrick of drowsy, lazy afternoons . . . ♪
McBride lives in Chinatown, and across the street lives George Sax’s brother Frank (an excellent Bruce Dern), once a brilliant chemist whom George had pushed out of the company. The whole city and Chinatown atmosphere, including the lighting, is captivating, and the series sometimes seems like an extended film noir.
Like the leading men in the series, the leading women are first rate, especially Jena Malone (of The Hunger Games), who plays Samantha (Sam) Margolis, the head of the law firm that hires McBride, and Nina Arianda, who reappears as Patty Solis-Papagian, a lawyer who often interacted with McBride in earlier seasons. Also from past seasons, actors such as William Hurt and Tania Raymonde less frequently appear, but add more good acting.
The show’s eight 40-54 minute segments are full of plot turns and samples of McBride’s quirky behavior, both adding to the entertainment. And occasionally we are furnished with additional examples of how screwed up the U. S. medical and drug regulation system is. For example, take these lines from Episode 8:
[Samantha addressing George Sax in court]: You claimed that this unique formula was less addictive, less subject to abuse, less likely to have withdrawal symptoms than any other painkiller. But that wasn't true, was it?
[George]: We were quoting the FDA.
[Samantha]: The truth is the extended-release formula was more prone to abuse. Because they had to jam more opioids into each pill, is that correct?
[George]: The FDA tested it, and they ruled it safe.
[Samantha]: No, they didn't, Mr. Zax. Drug companies, not the government, conduct and fund FDA testing.
[George]: Well, yes, that is the way it works, Ms. Margolis.
[Samantha]: So let me get this straight. You promoted Trimadone [the fictional equivalent of OxyContin] as safe because the FDA told you so.
[Samantha]: And the FDA said it was safe because you told them so.
[George]: If you disapprove of the current system, perhaps you could pay more in taxes and fund the FDA yourself.
In summary, Season 4 of Goliath provides something that is all to rare for TV watchers--a series that is both very enlightening and entertaining.
Walter G. Moss