True Crime Tuesdays: Dr Death
Helen Archer | On 29, Mar 2022
The medical drama is a particular type of torture. When things go wrong on an operating table it makes for gruesome, tense viewing, as unsuspecting, often unconscious patients find themselves at the mercy of professionals who, while generally having the best of intentions, are fallible human beings. Dr Death is particularly disturbing, as the doctor in question seems on a mission to deliberately disable and even kill his own patients.
Based on the Wondery podcast of the same name, the eight-part series tells the story of Dr Christopher Duntsch, a neurosurgeon whose botched operations resulted in the permanent maiming of numerous spines and the death of two patients during his short-yet-disastrous tenure at various Texas hospitals. Created by Patrick Macmanus, who has previously produced Homecoming, the true crime dramatisation is a flawed but ultimately somewhat indelible experience.
The programme-makers don’t linger on the surgeries as much as, say, Jed Mercurio’s Critical, where the operations were the focal point. Here, they take a back seat to Duntsch’s personal history and, later, the efforts of two of his fellow doctors to unmask him as at best incompetent and at worst a psychopath who deliberately caused the pain, suffering, and death of his patients. While not much is shown in the way of visible gore, the sounds of medieval-looking metal instruments impacting bone and muscle is the stuff of nightmares and as such, the series is probably not advisable viewing for anyone with upcoming surgery scheduled.
What we do get is a jumpy timeline, which begins as Duntsch (played with unsettling aplomb by nice-guy-everyman Joshua Jackson) starts his employment at Baylor Plano Medical Centre, where his first three operations tipped off his fellow doctors that something was very, very wrong. From there, we jump back to Duntsch’s failure to make good on his football scholarships and his decision to go into medical research, as well as his promising tech start-up career. Bouncing back and forth in time, this is intercut with other scenes that will make sense only towards the end of the series. Even for our sophisticated viewing habits, the editing and script are, in the first few episodes, disjointed and confusing.
Tying it all together is the teaming up of Dr Henderson (Alec Baldwin) and Dr Kirby (Christian Slater), who, throughout the series, are trying to blow the whistle on Duntsch and get his medical licence revoked. They are presented as an odd couple – Henderson the stoic, somewhat staid “straight man” to Slater’s more dramatic, immoderate Kirby. AnnaSophia Robb, as the Assistant DA who fights to take their case to court, grounds the pair with her no-nonsense investigation, which sees her visit some of Duntsch’s victims as well as the various women in his life. Grace Gummer and Molly Griggs do well with slightly underwritten parts – as Kim Gordon, Duntsch’s assistant and sometime lover, and Wendy Young, the mother of his child, respectively – and Dominic Burgess, playing Duntsch’s long-term friend who voluntarily went under his knife with horrifying results, is terrific in his portrayal of tragic blind loyalty.
But where the series fails, thanks to its fragmented nature, is in the presentation of Duntsch’s victims, many of whom barely get a look-in. When they do, they are somewhat interchangeable, with little in the way of either back-story or at the ways in which their lives were impacted by the actions of the surgeon. The timelines jump so much that it’s near-impossible to connect to any of these people, who are bit-part characters at best.
The other failure is that we are never quite sure what Duntsch’s motivations are. For all that his history is examined, we never really get to the heart of the man. Jackson plays him as an empathy-free sociopath, terrifying in his arrogance, and perhaps that is all there is to him. But questions remain regarding his motivations – was he deliberately harming his patients to satisfy some sort of sick urge, or was he completely out of his depth and simply didn’t care about the consequences? Even his personal relationships remain somewhat opaque, as his initial charm fades away and the monster lurking below the facade makes itself known.
And yet, despite all that, somehow, overall, the series works, gaining more momentum as it goes, becoming an unforgettable look into the kind of harm done when a narcissist succeeds in gaining entry to important spheres, with real, life-altering, physical power over his unsuspecting prey. It’s also a glimpse into the world where such people can be institutionally protected thanks to a culture of silence, underpinned by the promise of monetary gain. As such, it’s a series worth sticking with, and hopefully learning from, even as its nihilistic conclusion tells us that “what happened here, will happen again”.