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As the story goes, Jaws made generations of viewers terrified to go to the beach — which is significant because people, as a rule, enjoy going to the beach.
Peacock’s Dr. Death, which I guess one could call the Jaws of spinal surgery, is a miniseries designed to make you terrified to check in to the hospital — which ultimately feels less transformative because people, as a rule, don’t enjoy checking in to the hospital.
Instead of reshaping audience perceptions in any meaningful way, Dr. Death is an eight-hour affirmation of every fear and insecurity that you have about surgery and, as such, is more like shooting fish in a barrel than shooting a pressurized SCUBA tank in a toothy fish’s mouth. Perhaps that’s why either familiarity or fatigue set in after around five episodes of Dr. Death, which probably should have been capped at that length anyway. It’s still generally watchable and largely persuasive in its paranoia-enhancing depiction of the medical-industrial complex, playing like the best season yet of NBCUniversal’s Dirty John franchise, even if nobody chose to apply that banner here.
Adapted by Patrick Macmanus and a team of scribes from the Wondery podcast, Dr. Death focuses on Christopher Duntsch (Joshua Jackson), a Dallas-based neurosurgeon who was accused of killing multiple patients and leaving dozens more injured in a not-brief-enough reign of either terror, ineptitude or some combination of the two. How was Duntsch able to keep getting patients, keep getting operating privileges, and keep getting professional references and accolades after this string of medical misadventures? Was this former researcher, who boasted both a PhD and an MD, as brilliant as some of his colleagues claimed — and if he was truly that brilliant, does that mean he was evil?
Plotting to bring Duntsch down are fellow surgeons Robert Henderson (Alec Baldwin) and Randall Kirby (Christian Slater), as well as Dallas-area assistant district attorney Michelle Shughart (AnnaSophia Robb).
When it comes to Duntsch’s personal motivations, Dr. Death throws out rudimentary phychological guesswork, even as Jackson’s performance mostly treats him as an egomaniacal sociopath. It’s far more successful in breaking down the layers of institutional failure that didn’t just enable him, but actually protected him, mostly in the name of profit and sometimes in the name of the state of Texas’ utter disinterest in regulation.
In a mystery of causality — How does somebody like Duntsch avoid scrutiny? How could we prevent future Duntsches? — I guess I understand why Macmanus and company didn’t want to stick to a strictly linear storyline. Like one of Duntsch’s poor patients, it’s all hacked to pieces, hopping from 2007 to 2009 to 2011 and back in the early ’90s, when Jackson somewhat convincingly plays a 20-something version of himself. The same cannot be said for Dominic Burgess, semi-intentionally comical in younger scenes as Duntsch’s dedicated, dim-bulb pal Jerry, but then the heart of the show as older Jerry.
The series also covers Duntsch’s criminal proceedings in 2016 and 2017, scenes which use a courtroom to rehash the tragic nature of events you already saw and the meaning behind things you should have been able to figure out, with the added “treat” of Jackson encased in latex that reminded me mostly of Robert John Burke in the early scenes of the Stephen King adaptation Thinner, a piece of 1996 makeup work that nobody should want their 2021 artistry compared to. My own instinct is that having two storylines — Duntsch’s misadventures, and Kirby and Henderson’s indignant investigations — told linearly, on parallel tracks, would have been clearer and less repetitious.
You know Duntsch is going to end up dead-eyed and latex coated, and you know Kirby and Henderson, along with the doe-eyed Shughart, are our dogged heroes. So maybe the jumbled storytelling is meant to generate frustration in the viewer. We want justice and we want answers and what we get is webs of obfuscation and nattering about “surgical privileges.”
The first half of the series builds a momentum of audience anger and audience horror, carried much more by the choices of the directors, starting with Maggie Kiley, than the writers. The blundered surgeries are especially carefully handled, sometimes aiming to leave you disgusted with blood and viscera, but more frequently getting under your skin with the sound design — the slurping suctioning of fluids and the industrial ball-peen hammering of implements on bone — and with the unnerving score from Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross and Nick Chuba, a nightmarish soundscape you tend to notice only when things are at their worst. It’s such a bleak story, one that will leave you cringing and looking away from your TV with some frequency, that I was especially appreciative of the two episodes directed by increasingly confident actress-turned-director Jennifer Morrison, who throws in more than a few cheeky notes of humor, including a full sequence parodying the opening credits to Dallas.
The actors are also working at a level above the mechanical script. It hardly matters if the series around him understands Duntsch, because Jackson plays him with chilling consistency, so committed to his character’s commitment to his own brilliance and infallibility that you occasionally find yourself believing. I’m not sure Baldwin and Slater have more than one character note apiece to play — Baldwin gets “mature,” set against Slater’s more wisecracking, less inept version of Duntsch’s swagger — but the co-stars are clearly enjoying playing off of past roles, whether it’s Baldwin’s iconic embodiment of God Complex in Malice or Slater’s own stint as a degree-flaunting villain in the second Dear John season. The women, mostly Robb and a mercurial Grace Gummer as Duntsch’s former physician’s assistant, take over in the second half of the story, each actor once again finding a way to fully embody an underwritten part.
I didn’t begin feeling like Dr. Death was testing my attention span until the last couple of episodes, when the courtroom stuff is more conventional and more generally stagnant than the jumble before. Shughart’s character tries, with limited success, to get Kirby and Henderson to explain neurosurgical basics for her in a way that would keep the jury interested, but nobody took the same steps to explain legal basics to the screenwriters. Or maybe the problem is just bloat? And I don’t mean the kind of latex bloat that Jackson gets costumed in.
As it is, Dr. Death is already boosted by its superb cast to a position as Peacock’s best drama production to date, but with more narrative focus and economy, a tight six-hour version of this series might have been good enough to develop a God Complex of its own.
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