Christopher Duntsch, the onetime Dallas neurosurgeon whose butcher-like techniques killed two patients and permanently injured more, feels made to exist at the center of a work of fiction; perhaps, to our eye, he might seem to belong to the realm of make-believe more than to our real world. That creates a problem for “Dr. Death,” Peacock’s new limited series that tracks Duntsch’s story from college up to his trial on felony charges. Its subject’s crimes are so enormous, and so strange, that they render him unknowable, and leave a vacuum at this series’ center.
It’s not for lack of trying. Joshua Jackson plays Duntsch through the decades, gamely showing us the callow youthful ambition of a young man desperate to use medicine as a way to get ahead, as well as, later, the superciliousness of a surgeon who’s able to use his credentials and rank to push past any opposition. The series is studded with flashbacks that glance at Duntsch’s psychology: Rejected by his parents, he sought validation from a field he couldn’t credibly be a part of — the show implies, among other things, that Duntsch could not tell right from left, and depicts the wages of his bizarre maltreatment on the patients into whose bodies he hacked. In the final trial segment, Jackson glowers evilly out from behind prosthetic makeup intended to give him the appearance of a heavier man; it’s a special effect that doesn’t work, but the actor almost manages to push past it.
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What’s around him works less well. Alec Baldwin and Christian Slater, as two surgeons who seek to stop a colleague who seems to them obviously dangerous and unfit, are both doing what the script asks them to do, gamely and well. That they are temperamentally mismatched and impatient with one another is not itself an issue, but their buddy-comedy moments of tension feel like obvious and unsubtle attempts to lighten the mood that instead simply confuse it. And their quest to stop Duntsch with the help of a lawyer played by AnnaSophia Robb — a quest that the viewer familiar with the Wondery podcast on which this series is based will already know was ultimately successful — seems to forestall more interesting questions the show can’t or won’t address. “The question isn’t why he did it,” Baldwin’s character tells Slater’s early in the show’s eight-episode run. “It’s how he got away with it.”
That latter inquiry is important and interesting — and the answer “Dr. Death” proposes is some mixture of brute-force self-belief, a medical establishment high on prestigious diplomas, and a lack of communication between various entities that ought to have spotted an inept practitioner miles away. But the show so closely follows Baldwin’s line of thought — treating why Duntsch did what he did as almost irrelevant even as it documents his misdeeds — that it leaves a great deal on the table. (In this way, it suggests that the true-crime-podcast-to-limited-series pipeline that previously gave us the “Dirty John” franchise might tend to leave its potential insights slightly underbaked.) Parental maltreatment explains why Duntsch wanted to be a doctor, but why someone so far removed from the most basic understanding of medicine felt no guilt about leaving people forever altered, or killing them, is a question that warrants more serious consideration.
Instead, we see various sides of Duntsch, splintered and prismatic but never coming together into a cohesive whole. All are compelling: The ambitious would-be superstar who wants to be a pioneer in stem-cell research; the villainous rebel who tells Baldwin’s character that there are “49 other states” in which he can practice if his Texas medical license gets pulled; the salesman that urges and begs a patient with second thoughts to “make this happen today.” It’s in this last mode, and elsewhere in the series, that “Dr. Death” sidles up to an intriguing and provocative point, that the medical system in the U.S. incentivizes volume over good outcomes, and helped to create a doctor who was relentless in performing surgeries even as he cared little how they went.
But this is an explanation that only glimmers in moments, then falls away. Duntsch never adds up to a character we can understand, and standing back and wondering just how far beyond our understanding some people can be doesn’t fly as the takeaway for eight hours’ worth of entertainment. In the main, the show exists to document Duntsch’s deeds as seen by objective people of sound mind (including Grace Gummer as his surgical assistant), not to travel to the dark places that made Duntsch who he was. This might have made for a fascinating TV movie or shorter-run series — and it has its chilling pleasures — but “Dr. Death” ends up feeling like a long sit to end up no closer to understanding a case whose details are all public. That off-putting facial prosthetic during the trial comes to seem fitting. We may see him erupt from time to time, but we never manage to get behind Duntsch’s mask.
“Dr. Death” premieres July 15 on Peacock.
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