Based on the popular podcast, the 8-part Peacock series successfully combines mystery with medical drama.
Dr. Death borrows its tantalizing title from the Wondery podcast, which similarly breaks down a harrowing true story about a neurosurgeon who — for whatever reason — keeps killing or permanently harming his patients on the operating table.
The eight-episode series, streaming exclusively on Peacock starting July 15, centers around Christopher Duntsch, the titular doctor himself. Joshua Jackson fits this role perfectly as a smooth-talking but obviously beleaguered surgeon who flits from hospital to hospital concocting excuses for why he botches so many surgeries.
The first episode interestingly begins by showing the consequences of Duntsch’s malpractice, long before we get a glimpse of the man in action. Alec Baldwin plays Dr. Robert Henderson, the real-life surgeon who instigated an investigation into Duntsch early on, but far too late for many of his patients.
Early scenes of the show depict in painful detail how Duntsch practically maimed his patients over the course of several years. Squeamish viewers will certainly understand why in a later episode, someone calls the man a “butcher” instead of a doctor.
Joining Dr. Henderson in his crusade against Duntsch is Randall Kirby, played by an enigmatic, wildcard Christian Slater, who couldn’t be having more fun chewing this role. The unlikely duo share a complicated history, but they’re united in helping bring Duntsch down in any way possible. Unfortunately, this is only the beginning of a long, troubling story about how accountability isn’t always attainable.
Much of Dr. Death teases the obvious mystery behind what makes Duntsch tick. Why does he continue to operate on people after so many horrific outcomes? Everyone around him speculates out loud all kinds of theories that make more sense than Occam’s Razor (which one episode even uses as its title). Is he doing this on purpose? Did he steal someone’s identity? Is he just simply a sociopath?
Really, the intent behind his incompetence is secondary. The show posits that the real failure here is the system enabling his behavior, and how anyone with power could allow any of this to happen in the first place. A strength of the show is how it lays out the entire story much like a legal case. You get introduced to all the evidence sporadically, and through a carefully drawn narrative. So episodes dart back and forth in time, but always focusing on one crucial element of the case.
On the one hand, this approach often feels like overkill. Audiences don’t exactly need to be persuaded, especially when the show is clearly taking the rightful side, despite the constant protests from Duntsch who blames all his mistakes on others. Where the show trips is in its unwillingness to more fully examine the man’s narcissism beyond some repetitive beats. At some point, everyone watching gets it. The man is delusional, whether he believes it himself or not.
Squeamish viewers will certainly understand why in a later episode, someone calls the man a “butcher” instead of a doctor.
Eventually, the show finds itself amounting to the big outcome it teases in the first episode. AnnaSophia Robb joins the cast as Michelle Shughart, the Assistant DA who takes on the case to bring justice to Duntsch’s victims. By then, Dr. Death already feels played out, for the most part. It never sympathizes with Duntsch, but the show does address what little humanity must be in there, somewhere, and what’s stopping it from stopping him.
The best episodes of Dr. Death come in the middle, and they happen to be directed by Jennifer Morrison (undoubtedly relishing her return to medical dramas since her role in House). These are the episodes where Duntsch’s agency is still in dangerous territory, and the show slows to answer real questions about the residency that let him glide, and the hospitals buying into his credentials and ignoring all blood-soaked flags.
The rest of the show is certainly serviceable and well-directed, with Maggie Kiley (Dial a Prayer) and So Yong Kim (Lovesong) handling directing duties for the beginning and end (Kim particularly shares a good chunk of the best episodes, here).
Put together, Dr. Death is an easy binge, but a hard watch. The traumatizing surgeries are just that, and Jackson finds just the right balance of dark ambiguity in his performance. You can believe he convinced people for years to trust him. But you can’t believe men like him can be out there right now, capable of causing so much harm for so long.
Dr. Death premieres on Peacock July 15th.