As a child, you might have thought doctors knew everything. You visited them and afterwards you got either a sticker or maybe even a lollipop.
But as you moved into adulthood, you realized doctors are merely regular human beings. They aren’t infallible. They are capable of making mistakes. And like any profession, there are good doctors and bad doctors. Kind ones and dismissive ones. Humble ones and narcissistic ones.
But I’m here to tell you that whatever you think you know about the medical field will be upended by the new Peacock series Dr. Death. And that after watching these eight episodes, you may never want to go to the doctor again. The limited series is more unnerving than any horror movie.
Dr. Death follows the true story of Dr. Christopher Duntsch (Joshua Jackson), a Dallas neurosurgeon who horrendously botched surgeries, leaving his patients heinously maimed or, in a few cases, dead. Among his transgressions: he sliced vocal cords, left sponges inside people’s bodies, cut into muscles and nerves instead of bone. Wanting to cover their own you-know-whats, his employers passed him on from hospital to hospital with letters of recommendations carefully crafted by their legal departments. Finally, two doctors—neurosurgeon Robert Henderson (Alec Baldwin) and vascular surgeon Randall Kirby (Christian Slater)—made it their personal mission to stop him.
Duntsch’s story is already a hit Wondery podcast of the same name, and a quick Internet search will tell you exactly what Duntsch did and his current fate. Thus, the success of the series lies in the stellar performances and the way executive producer and showrunner Patrick Macmanus weaves the story.
Those who have loved Jackson since his days as Pacey on Dawson’s Creek (hi, it’s me) know what an utterly charming screen presence he is. All that charm totally works here, too, as Duntsch’s charisma masks the horror beneath. He sweet-talks patient after patient into trusting him as his ego grows. “This is what it’s like to date a god. Keep up,” he tells his girlfriend Wendy (Molly Griggs). Duntsch, who loves to recite his resume and remind anyone and everyone that he graduated at the top of his class, was an expert at deflecting blame; it was the anesthesiologist’s fault, the nurse’s fault, the equipment’s fault. “That surgery was perfect,” he says after one botched operation. “It’s just exhausting working with people with limited mental capacity.” It’s a tour-de-force performance from Jackson, whose has perfected a cold stare that will give you chills.
As the doctors who bring Duntsch down, Slater and Baldwin are a delightful odd couple—Kirby’s style is bold and brash while Henderson is the more tactful of the pair. Each actor comfortably slips into their role, which plays on their strengths (Slater’s sarcasm, Baldwin’s composed demeanor), and often provide the series with unexpected bouts of much-needed comic relief. “Want to come to my house?” Henderson asks Kirby. “Your parents home?” Kirby deadpans. I would watch a series of just them taking down bad doctor after bad doctor.
Dr. Death jumps back and forth in time from Duntsch’s college and medical school days to his fellowship with Dr. Geoffrey Skadden (Kelsey Grammer) to his disastrous time in Dallas where he maimed or murdered 33 patients. Although the dates and locations are always shown on the screen, the constant ricocheting through the timeline can be head-spinning. Especially when it comes to his time in Dallas, where things devolved so quickly.
Like many big institutions more concerned with protecting themselves (and not being sued) versus protecting the public, Duntsch was allowed to continue for far too long. The series upends all the things you thought you could count on to find a good doctor: that he or she works for a prestigious hospital, went to a top school, received years of training, and has good online reviews. All of it, you realize, could be smoke and mirrors.
The series also boasts an all-female directing team. And while all the episodes have a cohesive look, there are some innovative, out-of-the-box choices that truly shine. I was particularly fond of Jennifer Morrison’s artistic decision in the fourth episode, which I won’t spoil here, but it really drove home the point that Dr. Duntsch fancied himself a kind of star.
In addition to the leads, Dr. Death is boosted by a slew of strong performances from supporting actors including AnnaSophia Robb as Assistant District Attorney Michelle Shughart, Grace Gummer as the physician assistant who is initially duped by Duntsch’s magnetism, and a heartbreaking Dominic Burgess as Duntsch’s best friend Jerry Summers, who is so devoted to his pal that he willingly puts his own life in peril.
The writing, directing, and performances combine to make a taunt eight hours of TV, one that you will most likely quickly binge your way through. You’ll also be left with the unsettling knowledge that this is a true story, that this could and probably will happen again. That it could happen to you. You might even be inspired to suddenly start eating right, getting your eight hours of sleep every night, and making sure to drink water and exercise regularly.
Unfortunately, what’s missing is any true insight into what made Duntsch act this way, never delving too deep into his potential motivation. Although viewers never meet his brothers, it’s implied that Duntsch grew up living in the shadow of their success, and part of his bravado is due to his tense relationship with his taciturn father (Fred Lehne) from whom he seeks constant approval. “Pride comes before the fall, Christopher,” his father tells him.
The crucial question, which the series poses early and often, is whether Duntsch was just horrifically incompetent or a true narcissistic sociopath. “It was like he knew what he was supposed to do and did the exact opposite,” Dr. Kirby says. The series leaves the answer to the question open-ended, asking the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions. It’s frustrating, but also, can we ever know what would make someone commit such acts of evil?
All eight episodes of Dr. Death premiere Thursday, July 15 on Peacock.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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