Dr Death isn’t much of a rushed show. It takes its time to unfold, especially towards the end of the season. While the story itself may seem patchy, it’s actually more of an atmosphere than information.
Joshua Jackson in Dr Death
As is often the case with many true stories, there are plenty of facts and trivia presented at the end of the first season of Doctor Death, to shed additional light on some of the themes, people and stories covered in the show’s eight episodes. One of them is rather disturbing, because it puts into perspective the seemingly irrational fear that so many people have of seeing a doctor.
This nugget of information clarifies that after cancer and heart disease, medical errors are one of the leading causes of patient death in the United States. Let it penetrate. The fear of hospitals and doctors doesn’t seem so irrational after all, does it? Even those who seem nice, those who are able to instill a certain degree of trust in those in their charge – who knows what they look like in their actual work? This feeling of unease is a constant feature of Doctor Death, a series adapted from an actual detective podcast of the same name, for the NBCUniversal Peacock streaming service. (The show airs in India on Lionsgate Play).
Doctor Death was created by Patrick Macmanus, with three different directors leading individual episodes out of the eight that make up the first season. The doctor mentioned in the title is Christopher Duntsch, a Texas-based neurosurgeon who maimed dozens of patients in the Dallas-Fort Worth area over a two-year period. Some of them even lost their lives because of his wandering behavior on the operating table.
Focusing largely on how Duntsch was able to continue to operate with impunity due to individual, institutional, and systemic failures, the show attempts to paint a portrait of an overzealous and narcissistic man who seemed oddly determined to actively ruin Lives. At the same time, he also takes a critical look at the structures which allowed such a man to flourish, but which have finally succeeded in being held to account (although much later than he should have).
Thus, the show shuttles between the past and the present in order to retrace the path of the killer doctor. Simultaneously, he follows two other doctors who notice the trend in Duntsch’s track record and are dedicated to ensuring that he is brought to justice for his assaults on individuals as well as the medical system itself. He culminates in a trial where he must confront the very people and families whose lives he has ruined. Despite its rather awkward feel and a few important aspects of the story that have been overlooked, there’s a lot to enjoy in the mood the series creates.
For starters, the show’s cast is top notch. Joshua Jackson plays titular Doctor Chris Duntsch with an arrogant, sociopathic vibe that sees him go from ambitious to charming, to downright deplorable, as we take a look at various chapters and moments in his life. Jackson manages to distinguish older and younger versions of the character with aplomb, while also connecting one phase of life to another as he goes about his grotesque business. His skillful portrayal of Duntsch’s surprising character is a key factor that helps maintain his borderline perverse interest in the events of the series.
The supporting actors also do an impressive job – Alec Baldwin and Christian Slater as Doctors Henderson and Kirby, Grace Gummer as Kim Morgan, a woman who was in a relationship with Duntsch, and AnnaSophia Robb as Michelle, the assistant to the district attorney who undertook to bring Duntsch to justice.
However – and this has more to do with writing more than anything else – you only have an idea of What Duntsch did and How? ‘Or’ What he was as a person. The Why of the question is blatantly missing, leaving you to wonder what could have turned an ordinary American guy into an irresponsible madman, a real person who effortlessly shames fiction. Because of this, the film ends up more like a procedure – first in the hospitals, then in the courtroom – than an actual character study.
Another important facet of the show is the craftsmanship on display, especially the sound design. While I haven’t actually heard the podcast the show is based on, I imagine it manages to create an equally sordid feel just through the use of sound.
It’s rather intriguing, how the film eschews the graphic visuals of Duntsch’s surgical strikes in favor of embellishing the way they ring.
You don’t need blood and blood to cause discomfort, when you can clearly hear the sound of metal creaking through bones, spine, and tendons. The background music for the show, by Atticus & Leopold Ross and Nick Chuba, is just as effective in setting the weird but weird vibe and vibe that the show was clearly looking for. (The eponymous podcast itself has been immensely popular, with its third season recently released.)
Dr. Death is not really a rushed spectacle. It takes its time to unfold, especially towards the end of the season. While the story itself may seem patchy, it’s actually more of an atmosphere than information. What you can clearly feel is the great effort that went into giving Dr. Death precisely the kind of vibe that could eliminate viewers who aren’t very susceptible to nausea from excessively watching; it feels like the podcast is probably a lot more captivating than the TV show.
Dr Death is streaming on Lionsgate Play.