True crime enthusiasts have certainly already heard about Duntsch, the Dallas surgeon who maimed or killed 33 patients over 24 months before he finally lost his medical license was ultimately sentenced to life in prison. Peacock’s sister channel CNBC already detailed his crimes in an American Greed episode that aired in February 2021, and the new series takes its title from a hit podcast on Wondery.
That’s the issue, though; this all feels too familiar. NBCUniversal has already done a true crime show based on a podcast; that was called Dirty John, and it aired one season on Bravo before moving to USA for its second season. Not only that, but Dr. Death shares a star with Dirty John; Christian Slater, who portrayed adulterous husband turned murder victim Dan Broderick in Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story, now plays Duntsch’s colleague Randall Kirby.
Dr. Death never shakes off the feeling of following a formula, even if it’s a successful one.
SPOILER ALERT: Highlights of Joshua Jackson’s performance in Dr. Death. (Video Credit: Courtesy of Peacock.)
That doesn’t mean there’s no reason to watch Dr. Death. There’s a big one, and it’s Joshua Jackson. Watching his portrayal of Duntsch it’s hard to believe he wasn’t the first choice for the role; Jamie Dornan (The Fall) was originally cast and Jackson stepped in once Dornan had to step out.
But that proved to be for the best; Dornan is so good in the crime drama The Fall that he’d almost be too obvious playing Duntsch. We’d be looking for his tells, his moments of menace. Even though Jackson is decades removed from his charming roles in the Mighty Ducks films and Dawson’s Creek, he’s never lost his innate likeability. Viewers want to like him, which is exactly what you want when the series rests on the horror of someone who’s supposed to be a good guy turning very bad.
Coming off his angst-filled role in Showtime’s often melodramatic The Affair, Jackson knows how to dig into a character’s inner thoughts and twist them around. That combined with his appeal means he accomplishes that feeling of dread and disgust that Dr. Death needs. Slater and Alec Baldwin, whose characters are the whistleblowers here, are also both good but they don’t grip the audience the way Jackson does because we’re not seeing anything very different from what we’re used to watching them do.
If you’re looking for a scripted true crime fix and don’t mind some medical creepiness, Dr. Death is worth a watch; it’s solid, but it’s not quite as gripping as that first season of Dirty John. It proves that you can’t just take a true crime podcast and make it a hit show; you have to find a story that hasn’t already been covered extensively (especially by your own company) and find your own way into that story. There’s nothing unique in Dr. Death except Joshua Jackson going for broke in his most uncomfortable performance to date.
Brittany Frederick has worked 20 years as a professional journalist, reaching millions of readers worldwide with thousands of articles. Her one goal is to meet Jonathan Groff, but she’s sung with Adam Levine and gone 200 MPH with Mario Andretti. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @tvbrittanyf.