The docuseries in three episodes Viagra: the little blue pill that changed the world (Discovery+) steps back to tell the story of the birth of the world’s first orally ingested solution for erectile dysfunction – Pfizer was trying to make a pill to treat hypertension, when something totally different appeared – and also places the creation and marketing of the pill in the broader context of sexuality in society. Pfizer’s early researchers are interviewed here, along with its marketers, and little blue pill also features commentary from writers, journalists, and sex therapists.
VIAGRA: THE LITTLE BLUE PILL THAT CHANGED THE WORLD: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening shot: It’s 1998 and the atmosphere at the launch of Viagra by Pfizer is a mixture of euphoria and jokes. They knew they were going to make so much money pissing people off. And then, a more restrained look from Dan Rather in a vintage clip from The CBS Evening News. “There could be a major development available soon in the medical treatment of impotence.”
The essential: Directed by Brent Hodge (Pharma Bro, A Brony Story) at a breakneck pace, Viagra: the little blue pill that changed the world traces the creation and distribution of Viagra to a time in America when sexuality was in both liberation and overcompensation mode, the result of three decades of sexual revolution kicking in men’s reactions to the whole revolution . “We live in a phallic society,” says Dr. Mireille Miller-Young in little blue pill, “with all the skyscrapers and rockets exploding.” But before anyone can mention the recent trend of billionaire men riding custom-built rocket phalluses through space, the doc takes us back to where it all began, which was in 1985 at the research center of Pfizer Pharmaceuticals in Sandwich, England. The company’s researchers were looking for a profitable product, as Big Pharma is designed to do. But what they found would be bigger than anything they could have imagined.
When “Compound 92480” was developed, its purposes were to treat high blood pressure and hypertension, those perennial killers of the American consumer. But as medical professionals on Pfizer’s development team say, when their early trials found several participants achieving erections, they had to convince company management to fund studies in this surprising direction. And while it was initially a “hard sell”, the first human trials led to a much larger third phase, where the drug’s marked success rate was incredible, even for doctors leading the study.
With the clinical success of the pill, Pfizer had to prepare its marketing and little blue pill made the interesting observation that some people, even within the company, were just not ready for a pill that combated erectile dysfunction. It was a matter of efficiency. Erections? Why didn’t Pfizer spend money on cancer treatment? But the money was committed and the marketing arm got to work, represented here by Rooney Nelson, the company’s former marketing director. Pfizer had a life changer on its hands and a game changer economically. But was society’s hand writhing over sexuality ready for such a historic moment?
What shows will this remind you of? The Austrian documentary Blue Magic: How Viagra Changed the World (2020) also takes a wry look at the pill’s insertion between sex and culture, and also features interviews with co-inventor David Brown, although this document also interviews actor and adult film producer Rocco Siffredi. And speaking of pills, culture, and ironic looks, the Netflix doc take your pills examines the history of drugs like Adderall and Ritalin and their effects on contemporary society.
Our opinion : With its opening credits featuring Eiffel 65’s boppy novelty “Blue (Ba Da Bee)” playing on eggplant imagery, acknowledging a cultural symbol of the emoji era in its exploration of how whose sexuality and culture changed at a time decades before, the tone of Viagra: the little blue pill that changed the world launches somewhere between the oral history podcast and the grimace when you talk to your parents about sex. From its cheeky episode titles – “The Hard Science”, “The Hard Sell”, “The Hard Truth” – to the memories of Pfizer medical researchers about the “appropriate stimulating visual material” they provided to attendees of the first viagra human trials, little blue pill lots of nods to provide a timeline of the product’s development and an analysis of its intersection with popular culture and sexual identity through the ages. But there’s also the feeling that it works too. The circumscribed social mores of the 1950s fueled the burgeoning women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and men began to overcompensate before the fall of the 1980s with women asserting their professional identity, then it was the 1990s and vanity lounge Writer David Friend equates the proliferation of cigar bars with men’s sense of inadequacy. In little blue pillall this cultural history is just a bump on the road to more grimaces about sex pills and marketing.
Sex and skin: Two disclaimers run at the top of little blue pill – “this program is intended for a mature audience” and “this series includes discussions of sex, erectile dysfunction and explicit imagery” – and indeed there is a supercut of phallus through the prism of time, and also this eggplant featured prominently in the opening credits.
Farewell shot: “You’re dealing with the most controversial area of human society,” former Pfizer marketing director Rooney Nelson said of sexuality and the heady days of Viagra’s arrival on the market. “Are we about to risk the whole company on this brand? Are you asking me to make it work? Please. It’s impossible.”
Sleeping Star: Dr. Peter Ellis, who led the development of Viagra at Pfizer, views the drug’s life cycle with a charming blend of anecdotal observation, pharmacological knowledge, and a spirit of observation.
The most pilot line: Dr. Harin Padma-Nathan insists that Viagra has truly been a game changer in the medical industry. “The holy grail of sex medicine is finding a pill, only taking it when you want it, it’s very effective, it’s very safe.”
Our call: SPREAD IT. Viagra: the little blue pill that changed the world delivers its story with an airy pace, and plenty of pop culture contextualization of what the revelation of the world’s first erectile dysfunction fighter meant for sexual identity.
Johnny Loftus is a freelance writer and editor living in Chicagoland. Her work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glenganges