Wednesday, 22 September 2021

The horror story of ‘Dr. Death’ arrives two ways on Peacock




‘DR. DEATH’ ON PEACOCK

The premise of many horror stories in film and television come from the active imaginations of talented writers, but sometimes the source material is based either on real life events or by conflating fiction with a measure of factual occurrences.

As is the case with programs based on real events, Peacock’s “Dr. Death,” an eight-episode series on the terrifying true story of neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch, notifies the viewer that certain parts have been fictionalized solely for dramatic purposes.

In the case of Dr. Duntsch, once considered a rising star in the Dallas medical community who was building a flourishing neurosurgery practice, the awful truth of his malpractice is stranger and more frightening than fiction.

An Internet search of Duntsch reveals many sordid details of his surgical errors and his ultimate fate. The telling of this story in dramatic form presents the viewer a series that is more disturbing and unnerving than a horror movie.

Joshua Jackson’s Duntsch, who could boast that he mastered a medical degree as well as a Ph.D., is seen as charismatic and ostensibly brilliant as he promises patients with back and neck pain that he has pioneering ways to render them whole again.

The opposite of his assurances to perform minimally invasive spine surgery and his claim that every surgery was perfect is revealed over a short period of time to have resulted in 33 surgeries where the patient was either maimed or paralyzed and in a couple of cases died.

As the victims pile up, two fellow physicians, neurosurgeon Robert Henderson (Alec Baldwin) and vascular surgeon Randall Kirby (Christian Slater), find themselves in the unenviable position of going up against a colleague.

The limited series evolves in a nonlinear manner, which requires the audience to keep up with the timeline but allows for flashbacks that unpeel the layers of Duntsch’s sociopathic history and the gall of his narcissistic and unfounded belief in his skills.

In college, Duntsch was unable to grasp basic plays on the football team. As he made his way through medical school and his early career, he exuded an arrogance of confidence he could not back up.

Duntsch possibly thought that as a surgeon he was the next Christiaan Barnard or that in his research he might be just as important as Madame Curie or Louis Pasteur. The truth of the matter is that his arrogance and malicious incompetence belied any measure of medical genius.

Dr. Henderson, discreet and cautious, and Dr. Kirby, impetuous and bold, may be an odd couple offering up some comic relief in their banter, but their dedication to stopping Duntsch gets an ally in equally dogged young prosecutor Michelle Shughart (AnnaSophia Robb).

While watching many of Duntsch’s distressing surgeries and the resulting grief for the victims is deeply troubling, the emotional core of the story really belongs to the two doctors so excellently portrayed by Baldwin and Slater.

In the end, viewers are left to ponder whether Duntsch was grossly incompetent or maliciously evil. We may never know for sure, but “Dr. Death” is a compelling story of a broken system that failed to protect the most vulnerable from an ego-driven sociopath.

‘DR. DEATH: THE UNDOCTORED STORY’ ON PEACOCK

The case of Dr. Duntsch is so unsettling that Peacock follows up its eight-episode series “Dr. Death” with the four-part docuseries “Dr. Death: The Undoctored Story” that starts streaming on Thursday, July 29th.

The docuseries will offer audiences the chance to hear and see the whole story, told by the real people who survived it. Central figures to the doctor’s downfall are interviewed, so naturally that includes the real-life doctors Robert Henderson and Randall Kirby.

On the legal end, the key player, assistant district attorney Michelle Shughart who had the most challenging task of convincing the jury to convict Dr. Duntsch for a life sentence, is also interviewed.

Of course, the “Dr. Death” series prominently featured the two respected surgeons and the prosecutor, while the docuseries will also feature conversations with others closest to Duntsch and his criminal case.

Shedding light on his relationship with the disgraced doctor would likely come from an interview with Jerry Summers, Duntsch’s best friend who was paralyzed following two surgeries.

Wendy Young, the former stripper and ex-girlfriend of Duntsch and mother of his two sons, will offer her story. Both Summers and Young are portrayed by actors in the “Dr. Death” series.

Meanwhile, “The Undoctored Story” brings others to light who were not portrayed by actors in the series. Dr. Joy Gathe-Ghermay was the anesthesiologist during Jerry Summer’s horrific surgery.

Dr. Mark Hoyle, a Texas who physically tried to stop Duntsch during a surgery, and Tex Muse and Pamela Trusty, two of Duntsch’s victims, are also part of the program.

Interestingly enough, the Duntsch story came to light in 2019 on Oxygen’s “License to Kill” series in an episode appropriately titled “Deadly God Complex,” in which Dr. Robert Henderson and Dr. Randall Kirby were featured for their perspectives.

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.

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