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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

John Oliver recruits Batman, Walter White, and Omar Little to portray opioid kingpin Richard Sackler

Illustration for article titled John Oliver recruits Batman, Walter White, and Omar Little to portray opioid kingpin Richard Sackler
Screenshot: Last Week Tonight With John Oliver

On Sunday’s Last Week Tonight, John Oliver profiled the Sackler family. And if that sounds familiar to you, it’s because Samantha Bee profiled the multi-billionaire Purdue Pharma clan on Full Frontal not too long ago. But, before anyone starts with the copycat claims, there’s plenty of late-night televised comedic outrage to go around when it comes to the Sacklers, whose aggressive development and reckless marketing of infamously addictive painkiller Oxycontin has been the subject of multiple lawsuits and fines the likes of which, one imagines, could nearly fund treatment for the untold Americans who became addicted to Oxycontin. Still, as Oliver notes, there are plenty of companies (he cites one particularly egregious example in drug distributors McKesson) who’ve similarly put profits ahead of such irrelevant details as human life. So why the Sacklers?

Well, as Oliver notes, winding up with barely restrained glee at what he’s about to unleash, the Sacklers have done everything in their considerable power to keep their family name squeaky clean, even as the opioid epidemic—which Oxycontin helped juice into high gear—lays waste to families and communities across the country. That’s the same country (and world, while we’re at it) that the Sacklers love slathering their name and cash all over in their quest to portray themselves as the benignly generous art patrons they’d prefer be their family legacy. And while the Sacklers’ increasing profile (due to court cases and segments on late-night comedy shows) as greedy purveyors of highly addictive death is taking a hit, publicly, Oliver notes that that’s not quite going to cut it. Especially since the family routinely sues to keep all court documents sealed from view, and Sackler scion and Perdue exec Richard Sackler maintains a Thomas Pynchon-esque low profile.


But such evasiveness only makes Oliver and his staff more creative. Referencing the Sacklers’ claims that incendiary quotes from Richard Sacker about burying America with “a blizzard of prescriptions,” or saying that one state’s first wave of Oxycontin overdoses (killing 59 people) “could have been far worse,” or referring to the relief-seeking customers who built his drug fortune as “reckless criminals,” were taken out of context, Oliver called serious bullshit—with some serious help. Since the Sacklers habitually sue to keep such context (in the form of court transcripts and Richard’s video depositions) under wraps—even ordering the state of Kentucky to destroy 17 million pages of such context—Oliver came up with a plan. Since one such transcript of Richard Sackler’s testimony was recently leaked to badass nonprofit truth-seekers ProPublica, Oliver had that. But he also had, as he boasted, HBO money, and some famous fans on speed dial.

Michael Keaton (currently on a grand tour of portraying high-profile assholes) is shown giving his best supervillain gravitas to Sackler’s plan to shift all blame to the addicted, advising Purdue to “hammer the abusers in every way possible.” Chosen because, as Oliver states, “When you’re casting for a shadowy heir to a vast fortune who doesn’t like to be in the limelight, you go Batman,” Keaton also reenacted another particularly callous and evasive piece of testimony while eating a turkey sandwich. Because how do we know Sackler was not eating a turkey sandwich, really? but, not content to bring in “Michael fucking Keaton,” Oliver then threw Walter fucking White at Sackler, with Bryan Cranston doing some prime Heisenberg as he portrayed Sackler’s avaricious delight in bragging how Purdue pressured the FDA to approve Oxycontin in record time. “God, I felt that in my fucking bones,” Oliver admitted after Cranston spiked the camera for a long, chilling moment. And, since we’re talking HBO and the drug game, Oliver, teasing, “Omar’s comin’,” threw to The Wire’s Omar Little, Michael K. Williams, lending some singular obsessive intensity to Sackler’s transcribed rant about dedicating his life to making Oxycontin the number one drug on the streets. “Indeed,” chimed in Oliver. (Oh, and since all those guys made Sackler’s evil sound too cool, Oliver also called upon Richard Kind to make Sackler’s many evasive “I don’t know”s sound as ridiculous as possible.)

For the four actors reading extended excerpts from Richard Sackler’s leaked testimony, Oliver directed viewers to the recently purchased domain Sacklergallery.com. Which, for the art-loving Sacklers, is just some delicious trolling right there. Indeed.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.