The mini-series, based on Laura Beil’s eponymous podcast, is stratospherically disturbing thanks to its brilliant script and performances, and horribly real production
Even if Dr Death was terribly written and acted, it would still have been riveting because it is based on real events. Doctors are meant to make us well and relieve us from our pain. They are not meant to hack at our bodies and cause severe bodily harm and death. One cannot drag one’s eyes from the stratospherically disturbing Dr Death, based on Laura Beil’s eponymous podcast, thanks to its brilliant script and performances, and horribly real production. I don’t think I will be able to get the sound of the mallet crushing bones out of my head any time soon.
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The podcast, which premiered in 2018, looks at misconduct by medical professionals. Each of the three seasons of the podcast so far looks at different cases. The first, which the show is based on, looks at Dr Christopher Duntsch (Joshua Jackson), a seemingly-gifted Dallas neurosurgeon who killed two of his patients while maiming almost all the patients (33 out of the 38) he operated on.
Starting in the present with a blank-faced Duntsch in jail, the show goes back in time to Duntsch’s student days, when he first tried for a football scholarship and then decided to turn to medicine and an ambitious MD-PhD programme. His wooing by top medical centres in 2012 is intercut with scenes of copious alcohol and drug use, botched surgeries and the efforts of two doctors: Randall Kirby (Christian Slater) and Robert Henderson (Alec Baldwin) to stop Duntsch.
- Episodes: 8
- Run time: 44 to 63 minutes
- Creator: Patrick Macmanus
- Starring: Joshua Jackson, Grace Gummer, Christian Slater, Alec Baldwin, AnnaSophia Robb, Fred Lehne, Kelsey Grammer, Dominic Burgess, Molly Griggs
- Storyline: The harrowing true story of medical malpractice
The loopholes in the medical system, which allow to Duntsch to continue to harm his patients, are examined. It is finally the efforts of Michelle Shughart (AnnaSophia Robb) from the DA’s office to prove that Duntsch was intentionally harming his patients, which get him sentenced to prison for life.
While the acting is uniformly good, Jackson is riveting as Duntsch, whose malignant narcissism ensures that the other person is always to blame. Duntsch could not believe that he was a bad surgeon; apparently it was only during the court hearings that he had to accept the blame. Jackson is a dead ringer for the charming yet frighteningly soulless man, whose toxicity blights his every relationship from that with his wife, Wendy, (Molly Griggs), best friend Jerry Summers (Dominic Burgess) and lover Kim (Grace Gummer) to his mentor, Dr. Skadden (Kelsey Grammer), and father, Don (Fred Lehne).
Jackson as a stone-faced Duntsch walking away from Jerry who is rendered quadriplegic by his, Duntsch’s, surgery is one of the most terrifying and poignant scenes in the show. Summers died this year of complications from the surgery and the show is dedicated to him. Slater nails the motor-mouth vascular surgeon Kirby while Baldwin brings the necessary gravitas to Hendersen, the good doctor who cannot fathom Duntsch’s cavalier attitude to the Hippocratic Oath.
While these disquieting times, when doctors around the world are going above and beyond the call of duty to care for us, might not be the best to look at a rogue doctor, it is not a reason to look away from the cautionary tale that is Dr Death.
Dr Death is currently streaming on Lionsgate Play