Dr. Death and the Shortcomings of the Docudrama

Peacock's prestige docudrama highlights systemic failures but leaves it's central character an enigma

There’s something to the saying that truth is stranger than fiction. Every so often, there’s a news story that is just so strange, so unearthly, sometimes so horrifying, that you can’t imagine a room full of writers being able to match it. That’s definitely the case with Christopher Duntsch, nicknamed “Dr. Death,” who is the subject of the series of the same name, now streaming on Peacock. From the first episode to the last, Dr. Death shows us the horrific consequences of a healthcare system that’s more inclined to look after its bottom line than the lives of its patients, especially when said system is exploited by a surgeon whose medical ineptitude is matched only by his overbearing and tremendous ego.

The series’ eight episodes follow two doctors, Robert Henderson (Alec Baldwin) and Randall Kirby (Christian Slater) as they set out to try to keep Christopher Duntsch, who has left a trail of death and maimed victims behind him, from practicing surgery in Texas. Stymied by the state’s medical board’s refusal to revoke or suspend his credentials, they eventually forge an alliance with an ADA, Michelle Shughart (AnnaSophia Robb), who ultimately succeeds in getting Duntsch sentenced to life in prison in criminal court. Though his patients/victims will never fully be able to regain the life they had before they put themselves in his hands, they can at least know that justice has been served. 

In the tradition of the docudrama, the genre with which it most clearly aligns itself, Dr. Death keeps one foot in the world of fiction--taking some liberties with the known facts, excluding some characters, combining real figures into composites--while never letting us lose sight of the bigger message that it seeks to convey. Obviously, Joshua Jackson’s Duntsch is the center around which everything else revolves, but as much as the series shows us just how egregious his misdeeds are, it also wants us to see how his ability to move from hospital to hospital, thus evading responsibility for his malpractice, was a function of systemic problems. 

There are times watching Dr. Death where it’s almost impossible not to look away. It doesn't shy away from showing us the nitty-gritty of surgery, and as critics have noted it's an auditory experience as much as it is a visual one. We hear the grinding of drills against bone, the wet slickness of blood and organs being moved, the tension building with each surgery that Duntsch performs. We in the audience know that he’s criminally inept but, like the victims in a horror movie, we’re powerless to stop him. We can only watch in growing dismay as he cuts into person after person, his assurances that they’ll no longer be in pain becoming more of a sinister mockery with each surgery. 

Our powerlessness as viewers extends to Kirby and Henderson, who likewise find themselves stymied by the very systems supposed to keep surgeons like Duntsch from cutting into anyone else. Most of what they have to go on is circumstantial--and could be perceived as malpractice rather than criminal--and to make matters worse they often only come onto the scene after he’s finished. Time and again, they face recalcitrance from those who let Duntsch slip through the cracks. 

It’s only when they enlist the aid of Shughart that power begins to decisively shift, and the criminal system succeeds where the medical failed. The final episodes feel more like a procedural drama than a docudrama per se, but they are effective in reinforcing for us, the viewers, the full extent of what it is that he has done and how much harm he’s inflicted on the lives of his patients. Just as importantly, these episodes also allow us to see Duntsch’s response, his growing anger and despair as the full enormity of his ineptitude comes crashing down on him, sweeping away the hubris that had insulated him from recognizing the house of lies he built around himself.

Because, of course, as much as Dr. Death is about systemic problems, it’s also about individuals, though here it struggles a bit. Slater and Baldwin turn in fine performances, but it’s Jackson who steals the show. He imbues Duntsch with a seething sociopathy that’s hard to look away from, even when he’s cutting into a man’s neck and misrecognizing a piece of esophagus for a cancerous tumor. With his deep voice and magnetic personality, Jackson allows us to see how how it was possible for this grossly incompetent man to continue convincing so many people--including his best friend, who he rendered a quadriplegic--to turn themselves over to his care. At the same time, he also digs deep to show us Duntsch’s dark side, his tendency to erupt into anger whenever he’s challenged or rejected by someone. 

However, Dr. Death doesn’t try to give us an explanation for why Duntsch is the way he is. By the time the series ends, I was left feeling as confused about his motivations and psychology as I was at the beginning. Some of this, I think, stems from the series’ narrative structure, which features so many shifts in time that it’s hard to really see how the events fit together in any sort of chronological way (unless you have the patience to map it all out, which I do not). In the eyes of the show, evil on a human level remains inexplicable, while systemic malfeasance is rendered understandable. 

Where Dr. Death succeeds, however, is in galvanizing the emotions of its audience. By the conclusion, we’re satisfied with Duntsch’s sentence, precisely because we’ve seen how horrible the consequences have been for the people who were under his scalpel. We’ve seen them in their wheelchairs, we’ve seen them struggling with pain, we’ve seen their lives ruined by his actions. The final irony, however, is that as gruesome as the series is, and as much as it arouses our feelings of righteous indignation against both Duntsch and the system that enabled him, it pales in comparison to the actual story (which Peacock also detailed in a companion documentary series).

It turns out that truth is not only stranger than fiction; it’s also more horrifying.