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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Gripping Podcast-to-Screen Drama 'Dr Death' Is Your Next Chilling True-Crime Binge-Watch

The grim and compelling eight-part series stars Joshua Jackson as a real-life neurosurgeon charged with killing and maiming his patients.
By Sarah Ward
July 21, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
July 21, 2021
  shares

Cliffhangers aren't a new creation. On the page, abrupt endings and shock revelations that leave you hanging for the next chapter date back centuries, in fact. On the screen, they've been around as long as movies and TV shows have existed, too, and have popped up in everything from The Empire Strikes Back to Twin Peaks. Streaming platforms love them with a particular passion, however. End an episode with a cliffhanger, and viewers will ideally keep watching the next instalment right there and then, and the one after that, until they've just binged the entire program in one go because they simply couldn't wait to find out what happens. We've all been in that situation — and, once you press play on Dr Death, you're likely to find yourself in that same terrain again.

Now streaming on Stan, the true-crime series deploys the tactic masterfully. When each episode ends, the audience desperately wants more. That's a product of the show's structure, with jumping around between different years in Christopher Duntsch's life part of its approach, and also a result of the stressful story itself. As played by Joshua Jackson (Little Fires Everywhere), Duntsch is full of charm when he's trying to encourage folks with spinal pain and neck injuries into his operating theatre — or when he's attempting to convince hospitals, particularly in Texas, to hire him. But again and again, those surgeries end horrendously. And if he's not endeavouring to sweet talk someone to get what he wants — and maintain the reputation and lifestyle he demands — the neurosurgeon's charisma melts into pure arrogance, including when he's dealing with his patients post-surgery and/or their loved ones.

That's the narrative that Dr Death charts, all based on Duntsch's real-life tale — with the series following The Case Against Adnan Syed and the first and second seasons of Dirty John in jumping to the small screen from podcasts. If you've heard the Wondery release that shares Dr Death's name, you'll know how it all turns out, but that doesn't make the show any less effective. If you're coming to it all anew, prepare to watch a horrific scenario unfold over and over in this eight-episode drama. The longer he's allowed to operate, the bleaker Duntsch's story gets, all while fellow Texas surgeons Randall Kirby (Christian Slater, Dirty John) and Robert Henderson (Alec Baldwin, Pixie) do whatever they can to bring his misdeeds to light.

Working in Dallas during the past decade, Duntsch was originally a rising neurosurgery star. Then, as the series charts, his patients started leaving the operating theatre either permanently maimed or dead. And, as Kirby and Henderson begain to realise, these weren't just the kind of mistakes that any highly skilled surgeon might make. If you've ever faced going under the knife, this is pure, unfettered and deeply disturbing nightmare fuel — and Dr Death rightly treats it as such. The plot here is inherently petrifying anyway, given that it all really happened; however, directors Maggie Kiley (another Dirty John alum), Jennifer Morrison (also an actor on House) and So Yong Kim (Lovesong) draw out every ounce of terror and tension, as does series creator Patrick Macmanus (Homecoming) and his writing staff.

Playing Duntsch, Jackson is worlds away from his well-known work on Dawson's Creek, The Mighty Ducks and Fringe. When the situation calls for it, he can win over whoever he needs to, but something chilling lingers in every moment. It's a powerful performance in a series that also boasts great work from Slater and Baldwin — the former sliding into his usual talkative on-screen persona, and gifted one particular line that'll make Mr Robot fans laugh; the latter operating in a quieter and more solemn tenor. As the Dallas prosecutor who takes the case, AnnaSophia Robb (Words on Bathroom Walls) plays dogged and determined with aplomb as well.

Obviously, this is grim viewing — and gripping, anxiety-riddled, cliffhanger-filled and highly bingeable viewing, too. It's also a damning indictment of America's health system, the push for profits infiltrating medicine, the lack of checks and balances afforded egotistic white men with high-powered jobs, and the rockstar standing that's handed out much too easily and quickly to those same culprits.

Check out the trailer below:

Dr Death is available to stream now via Stan.

Top image: Scott McDermott/Peacock.

Published on July 21, 2021 by Sarah Ward

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