Dr. Death

Jul 14, 2021
By Kyle Mullin
Photography by Scott McDermott/Peacock
Web Exclusive

Few things sound scarier than a supposed healer breaking bone. Your ears will certainly be rattled, and your skin will crawl, as Joshua Jackson menacingly wields a mallet and scalpel as the infamous Christopher Duntsch. He is backed by TV’s best sound effects while committing frequently lethal malpractice. Those scenes in the O.R. are among the most effective on Dr. Death, the new series depicting the true story of the surgeon that injured and killed slews of patients in Texas in the early 2010s. Jackson is clearly keen to sever any ties with the heartthrob roles that made him famous. Co-stars Christian Slater and Alec Baldwin don scrubs with equal enthusiasm as his fellow surgeons aiming to bring Duntsch down before his next victim goes under.

Baldwin steals every scene he’s in with refreshingly against-type subtlety as a sleuthing surgeon gathering evidence against Duntsch, though strictly by the book. Slater’s cussing, goofily laughing foil to his co-star’s straight man is less convincing, though arguably more fun. Comedic relief might seem like a joke in and of itself, given the source material (let alone the title), yet, Slater’s oddball performance will make audiences sigh with relief. This is partially due to the series’ tone, which too often strives for menacing, slow-burn suspense, only to fizzle into blandness. Each moment is shot with scalpel sharpness, every angle and blurred ease into focus gives the audience intimacy with these complicated characters. But too many of those scenes are anesthetically paced. The dialogue is the biggest slog of all, however—too often cliched conversational connective tissue that the game cast strains to make convincing.

One thing screenwriter Patrick Macmanus (a prior executive producer on Marco Polo and Happy!) gets right: the ambiguity of Duntsch’s intentions. Guessing whether he’s sociopathic or inept gives Dr. Death’s early episodes some much needed dynamism. And yet, it’s a stretch to try and empathize with an angsty college-aged Duntsch in flashbacks, considering the forthcoming blood on his hands. Jackson’s weight loss and apt sendup of his boyish features make that notion surprisingly less far-fetched.

Like emergency surgery, the tonal and thematic elements of this subject matter are delicately intricate. Duntsch’s story would be tough to stitch up in even the steadiest of auteur’s hands. Hats off to Macmanus and directors Maggie Kiley, Jennifer Morrison and So Yong Kim for their ambitious vision, not to mention the ace cast. At the same time, it’s a shame that Dr. Death is too often so dull. (www.peacocktv.com/stream-tv/dr-death)

Author rating: 6/10

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