Dr. Death review: Joshua Jackson is chilling as a sinister spine surgeon
Dr. Death would be almost unbearable to watch if it weren't clear from the very first shot that Christopher Duntsch — the titular practitioner, played with slippery charm by Joshua Jackson — is now securely behind bars. Peacock's gripping adaptation of the true-crime podcast probes our primal fear of bodily invasion while presenting a painfully effective depiction of the human toll caused by one man's unchecked ego.
It's 2017. Duntsch sits handcuffed to a prison doctor's exam table, his glare boring into the camera as testimony from his victims echoes in voiceover: "I woke up in a nightmare." "Every bone hurt." "I was worse." "What has he done to me?" The answer begins five years earlier in suburban Dallas, where Dr. Duntsch is about to operate on Madeline Beyer (Maryann Plunkett), an older woman with back pain. It does not go well. Surveying Ms. Beyer's mangled spine during a revision surgery, Dr. Robert Henderson (Alec Baldwin) is stunned: "It looks like putty, just smashed in there." (Excuse me while I put my head between my knees for a second.) By the end of the increasingly tense first episode, Dr. Henderson and his colleague Dr. Randall Kirby (Christian Slater) have determined that this is just one of Duntsch's many botched surgeries in recent weeks. To stop him, they'll need to overcome the daunting firewall of operating-room politics, CYA hospital policies, and the lobbying power of Big Medical.
Part medical drama, part mystery, part Catch Me If You Can thriller, Dr. Death (premiering July 15) begins with the dread level at a 10 and just keeps cranking it higher. Hopping between multiple timelines in Duntsch's life — dashed college football hopes in 1991; launching a stem-cell research startup in 2009; landing a coveted neurosurgery gig at Baylor Plano in 2011, marking the start of his disastrous run — the eight episodes mosaic together a damning portrait of a doctor whose great-on-paper credentials masked an appalling lack of training and skill.
Duntsch, though, is charismatic and cocky, possibly a full-blown sociopath and definitely high on his own supply, literally and figuratively. Jackson wields his natural geniality like a scalpel, as Christopher razzle-dazzles a pair of girlfriends — including Wendy (Molly Griggs), a stripper who bears his child, and Kim Morgan (Grace Gummer), a self-assured physician's assistant — and his high school buddy Jerry (Dominic Burgess) into helping him build a medical "empire." The actor, at times saddled with layers of faux flab, is equally adept at evoking the other facets of Dr. Duntsch's personality: Coked-out playboy, cruel narcissist, desperate bully. "I am trying to help you win in life!" he screams at Wendy during one of their blowout fights. You can actually hear Jackson lose his voice.
On their own, Baldwin and Slater are excellent actors. Together, they are a spin-off waiting to happen. Dr. Henderson is composed and conscientious, while Dr. Kirby is rash and loquacious; as the two surgeons begin investigating Duntsch's disastrous career, their conflicting styles deliver some much-needed comic relief. ("You are like a restless toddler," scolds Henderson with a solemn sigh.) But their efforts to bring Duntsch to justice serves as the series' emotional center. Armed with nothing but tenacity and moral certitude, the surgeons painstakingly piece together Duntsch's history of dangerous incompetence. Eventually they team up with Dallas ADA Michelle Shughart (AnnaSophia Robb), working toward one unprecedented goal: convicting a negligent doctor in criminal court.
Intent is almost impossible to prove, whether in a court of law or a scripted adaptation of an acclaimed true-crime podcast. Dr. Death's overreliance on time hops introduces unnecessary confusion — one episode jumps eight times between five different years (!) — and the show never truly answers the why of Duntsch's story. But the what and the how are harrowing enough. Dr. Death succeeds by focusing on the people who fought for years to make sure Christopher Duntsch could do no more harm. Grade: A-