By Chris Byrd | Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — The Wondery podcast “Dr. Death,” which recounts the horrific malpractice engaged in by former Texas neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch, has attracted 50 million listeners since its 2018 inception.
In a bid to capitalize on this popularity, Peacock has produced a limited-series namesake drama.
They’ve stocked it with a high-profile cast, including Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater and Kelsey Grammer. The presence of these heavy hitters, however, fails to redeem what turns out to be a banal, tedious and belabored production.
All eight hourlong episodes are streaming now. The first three of these are free. To watch the others, though, viewers must subscribe to Peacock Premium.
Patrick Macmanus developed the show and actress Jennifer Morrison (“Once Upon a Time”) is one of the three women filmmakers who directed it. Baldwin and Slater are among those credited as executive producers.
As the title alone suggests, the program isn’t suitable for children. Along with the mature central topic, a morally dubious scheme involving stem-cell technology figures prominently in the plot.
The sexual content, moreover, is considerable and includes a gratuitous glimpse of full nudity. Substance abuse, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy and references to abortion are also included. Taken together, these elements make “Dr. Death” a dicey option even for adults.
When Duntsch (Joshua Jackson) joins the staff of the Lone Star State’s Dallas Medical Center, it doesn’t take long for at least two of his new colleagues, Dr. Robert Henderson (Baldwin), a fellow neurosurgeon, and vascular specialist Dr. Randall Kirby (Slater), to realize what a hack he is. So the duo teams up to ensure, if they can, that he never operates again.
They make for unlikely partners. Kirby is an unfiltered, shoot-from-the-hip maverick while Henderson is both tightly-wound and exceedingly cautious.
To build their case, they investigate Duntsch’s past. His time as a surgical fellow with his Memphis, Tenn.-based mentor, Dr. Geoffrey Skadden (Grammer), seems especially germane.
During this period, Duntsch was seeking financial backers for a medical research and development startup called Discgenics. As an investor in this project, Skadden appeared willing to turn a blind eye to Duntsch’s growing drug dependency and continual neglect of his surgical training. Nor will he implicate his former protege even now.
With Skadden uncooperative and the Texas Medical Board refusing to withdraw Duntsch’s license, Henderson and Kirby appeal to Dallas County District Attorney Ed Yarborough (Danny Burstein) to file charges against the miscreant.
Yarborough is initially skeptical. Eventually, however, his subordinate, Michelle Shughart (AnnaSophia Robb) — whom Yarborough identifies as “the youngest assistant district attorney in the history of this office” and who describes herself as “naive and idealistic” — manages to change his mind.
The show succeeds best as an expose of the grave injustices surrounding Duntsch’s misdeeds. The disgraced physician was ultimately given a life sentence, but not before killing or maiming as many as 33 people, including his good friend Jerry Summers (Dominic Burgess), whom he left paralyzed.
Slater gives an energetic performance and develops a nice chemistry with Baldwin. But too many deficiencies plague the series for them to be able to save it.
Duntsch’s backstory, for instance, isn’t that interesting or appealing. A plot line about his failed career as a Colorado State University football player is particularly problematic since the 43-year-old Jackson is hardly credible in the role of a college student.
Duntsch’s juvenile antics with Summers, moreover, soon grow tiresome. So, too, do his angry disagreements with his girlfriend at the time, former stripper Wendy Young (Molly Griggs).
Finally, the writers make such a convincing case, early on, that Duntsch should be put away that his downfall, when it comes, feels anti-climactic. “Dr. Death,” as a result, goes out with a whimper.
Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.