PLOT: Inspired by the terrifying true story of Dr. Christopher Duntsch, a rising star in the Dallas medical community. Young, charismatic and ostensibly brilliant, Dr. Duntsch was building a flourishing neurosurgery practice when everything suddenly changed. Patients entered his operating room for complex but routine spinal surgeries and left permanently maimed or dead. As victims piled up, two fellow physicians, neurosurgeon Robert Henderson and vascular surgeon Randall Kirby, as well as Dallas prosecutor Michelle Shughart, set out to stop him.
REVIEW: Podcasts have become incredibly popular in recent years and as such represent a new medium for Hollywood to adapt. With so many podcasts focused on true crime stories, studios have been chomping at the bit to tell some of the more outlandish and horrifying tales in dramatic fashion. The latest series is Dr. Death starring Joshua Jackson as Christopher Duntsch, a neurosurgeon convicted of some truly heinous surgical horrors. With a cast that also includes Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater, and many more, Dr. Death is a portrait of a man of healing who was truly a psychopath.
Dr. Death jumps around in time through the 2010s as doctors Robert Henderson (Alec Baldwin) and Randall Kirby (Christian Slater) become aware of a series of botched surgeries performed by Christopher Duntsch. Collaborating on their investigation, the pair begin to suspect that Duntsch is either grossly incompetent or intentionally injuring his patients. The series follows their discoveries as well as the perspective of Duntsch as the events unfold and flashbacks showing a glimpse into his skewed psychological state. It is a somewhat melodramatic series that owes more than a little to Baldwin’s own medical thriller Malice. Seeing Baldwin on the other side of the God complex is interesting as Joshua Jackson is quite striking as the titular doctor.
Joshua Jackson has been playing self-confident, smarmy characters for decades on series like Dawson’s Creek, The Affair, and Fringe, but in Dr. Death, he gets to play with a lot more pathos than in any of those other tales. Balancing that thin line between portraying Dunsch as sympathetic versus a monster, every scene led me to question whether this man was aware of his actions or not. It is quite stunning to see Jackson shift from inebriated to cocksure to smugly superior, often in the same scene. To say that he holds his own opposite Baldwin and Slater as well as supporting performances by Kelsey Grammer, AnnaSophia Robb, and Grace Gummer is quite something.
Baldwin here delivers quite an understated performance alongside the more animated Christian Slater. The pair play reluctant partners who tackle their quest to take down Duntsch from very different vantages. Baldwin remains a commanding on-screen presence and Slater once again proves he is criminally underused and deserves many more roles like this. Over the 8 episodes that comprise this series, Baldwin, Slater, and Jackson share a limited amount of screen time that eventually leads to the scenes they do share being worth the wait. The biggest issue I found is that it takes so long to get there and there are only so many times we can see Duntsch making the same mistakes before it begins to feel redundant.
Created by Patrick McManus (Homecoming season 2, Happy) and directed by Jennifer Morrison (Once Upon A Time), Maggie Kiley (Dirty John), and So Yong Kim, Dr. Death is visually dark and muted, giving every scene a shadowy and sinister quality. The large on-screen title cards stating the year and setting are one of the more intriguing elements as they appear to be physically in the scene and are one of the few elements that pulled me out of the story itself. One episode, in particular, used music and on-screen subtitles for no apparent reason and serves as another example of a creative decision that feels out of place compared to the rest of the story.
The story at the core of Dr. Death is disturbing, to say the least. As much as Duntsch’s actions were horrifying and disturbing, this series paints the shortcomings of both the medical and legal professions that would allow such actions to go on unchecked. This series doesn’t do much to shed light on the story that was expertly told in podcast form but does allow the talented cast to shine. The series feels a couple of episodes too long and begins to feel a bit repetitive despite the non-linear format trying to keep things moving. With an ending that anyone could easily Google, Dr. Death still manages to keep you engaged to find out if Duntsch gets what is coming to him.
Dr. Death premieres July 15th on Peacock.