Dr. Death, based on the popular podcast and the terrifying true story, drops on Peacock today.
The series follows the career of Dr. Christopher Duntsch (Joshua Jackson), a surgeon working in the Dallas/Fort Worth area of Texas who permanently maimed or caused the death of 33 out of 38 patients on whom he operated. Yet, it was only after two fellow surgeons (Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater) began to question his credentials and methods that hospitals and an assistant district attorney (AnnaSophia Robb) took notice of what was happening.
It’s a story that is undeniably complicated which is one of the things that drew showrunner Patrick Macmanus to the material when the podcast was sent to him with the question of a screen adaptation attached.
**There are some light spoilers beyond this point. If you are unfamiliar with the case of Dr. Christopher Duntsch, be aware.**
“I found the story compelling, and I also found the characters compelling,” he said as he sat down to chat with iHorror about the show. “So I threw my hat in the ring. I put together, very briefly, the overall idea of the show. I’m talking three quarters of a page where I talked about dual timelines and how the dual timelines will meet in episode seven and basically a very bare bones structure and pitched what I found most compelling. And they gave me the gig. It’s just been an extraordinary experience. I couldn’t be happier with he cast and the crew and the writers who save my ass everyday in the writer’s room.”
In exploring the complexity of Dr. Christopher Duntsch, Macmanus knew early on that this was not someone that could easily be placed in a box. Nor was he was he a person you could simply put a black hat on and stand them under a flashing neon “Villain” sign.
For starters, while the things he did in the operating room were unfailingly horrific, he was also a highly capable, groundbreaking researcher who holds several patents still used in the medical field. Duntsch’s situation, as Macmanus pointed out to me, was really a perfect storm.
He was enabled to do the things he did by a flawed healthcare system that allowed him to continue operating time and time again despite the objections of nurses, fellow surgeons, and the horrible outcomes of his surgeries. The showrunner believes beyond a shadow of a doubt that Duntsch deserves to be in prison, but again, there’s just so much more to the story.
“I think it’s very easy to call him a psychopath because we can explain that away, but the truth is that he is far more complex,” the showrunner explained. “I believe that he was a narcissistic sociopath. Maybe there are people who are professionals who would disagree with me, and you should absolutely listen to them. I think that you’re born that way. There is something in your makeup that makes you a narcissistic sociopath and then it’s nurtured by those around you. I think that system saw in him a promise. He was intelligent. He was driven. He was charming. They could take advantage of all the positives and in doing so, they fanned the flames of his ego which became this huge conflagration. He began to buy into his own press.”
Macmanus does not believe that the hospital administrators were intentionally trying to encourage the doctor’s delusions. He does believe, however, that this is one of those examples of everything that can go wrong actually going wrong. The healthcare system failed Duntsch’s patients, but in a way, they also failed the doctor himself.
Still, while bringing Dr. Death and this story to life, it was important to balance how they told the story. For that, they went back into research and interviews, combing through patient statements, etc. to find the story underneath.
In all of that, one of the things that fascinated him most came as they were preparing the finale, discussing how both the prosecution and the defense approached the case.
“The prosecution was arguing one side of the case which was this guy [Duntsch] did it on purpose,” he said. “He had a track record of injuring people. He should have known better. It was all on him. The defense’s perspective was: No, no, no, look at where he came from and why didn’t anyone stop him? What makes the finale compelling is that we were able to delineate all of that in one courtroom. That became a tool where we knew were going to be able to do something interesting.”
It was during this research for Dr. Death that Macmanus and the writers began to come across a recurring anecdote from witnesses in the courtroom. People who didn’t speak to one another, who never communicated recalled a singular moment in the trial when Duntsch seemed to understand that perhaps he had done something wrong after all. It wasn’t in what he said, but how he acted: the look on his face, the change in his demeanor.
Culpability sat on the shoulders of Duntsch, perhaps for the first time in his life, and they saw it happen. So, Macmanus and Jackson spent a great deal of time talking about how they could show that in the series.
“This is a character study,” Macmanus said. “It’s a study of the mind of this man that we’ll never fully understand and that we shouldn’t try to explain. Evil is often impossible to explain. So that was something that Josh and I discussed a lot. He was never going to stand up and say anything. But you needed to see it. You needed to see that moment where he finally began to understand.”
Sadly, Macmanus says, he believes that this could happen again, and honestly, after seeing Dr. Death and reading more about the case, we have to agree.
That’s why Macmanus and his production company have worked over the last twelve months to create a social action campaign designed to bring attention to medical harm in the United States and the flaws within the healthcare system itself.
“It’s meant to bring attention to medical harm in the United States to try to give patients the tools that they need in order to research their doctors and their hospitals,” the showrunner said. “And to give audiences and patients the tools that they need to take on the political system and to insure that the laws that are being passed are there to protect the patients first and foremost. I want audiences to know that this has happened before and it can happen again and they should know how to protect themselves and their loved ones.”
At the same time, Macmanus had this to say:
“I also want audiences to know that ultimately they can trust the medical community. I found it interesting that we were filming this during the pandemic when it seemed that for the first time everybody saw their doctors and medical practitioners as heroes and lauded them as such. I believe that these people were heroes before the pandemic. They will be heroes after the pandemic. There are far more Hendersons and Kirbys and Shugharts and Josh Bakers than there are Duntsch’s out there. We need to continue to hold these people up while acknowledging that there are flaws in every system. Everyone deserves good quality healthcare.”
For more information on this social action campaign CLICK HERE.
All eight episodes of Dr. Death dropped on the Peacock streaming service today! Check out this incredible story, and tell us your thoughts in the comments below.