(Warning: This post, which was originally published July 15, contains mild spoilers for Peacock’s “Dr. Death.”)
As its title strongly suggests, “Dr. Death” isn’t a show about a good physician. And the Peacock limited series — which is based on Wondery’s hit podcast about the real-life Dallas neurosurgeon Dr. Christopher Duntsch (played by Joshua Jackson) — goes to great pains to depict just how terrible an operator this man was, with many graphic scenes showcasing the spinal surgeries that left many of his patients permanently maimed or dead.
There are surgical tools used in ways that are clearly improper to even those of us watching who have no medical training. There are cracking and crunching noises that will set viewers’ teeth on edge as they wonder if that’s a sound a bone should ever make. And there are an uncomfortable number of times that Duntsch’s surgical team looks at him in horror for what he’s doing, even as they question him aloud.
All of this was carefully orchestrated by Jackson and “Dr. Death” showrunner Patrick Macmanus to illustrate the exact way Duntsch performed so many wrong surgeries.
“I had the opportunity to go and observe several live surgeries,” Jackson told TheWrap. “So I was able to see what competent people doing it the right way looks like. And then we had a spinal surgeon who was available to us, but was also with us on set, to walk us through the procedures, like, ‘It was going well until here and then this thing happened and it goes completely off the rails.’ So I had access to the people and tools that I needed to be able to get things so horribly, horribly wrong.”
“Dr. Death” follows Duntsch as he makes error after fatal error, until two fellow physicians, neurosurgeon Robert Henderson (Alec Baldwin) and vascular surgeon Randall Kirby (Christian Slater), as well as Dallas prosecutor Michelle Shughart (AnnaSophia Robb), realize what he’s doing and set out to stop him. But before they can, he racks up a wild number of “catastrophic mistakes” that Jackson said were not at all dramatized.
“I wish that we were embellishing for dramatic effect, but Patrick was very dedicated to the idea of getting that right,” Jackson said. “Of not turning it into a gory horror show just for the purposes of our show. Duntsch’s surgeries were that spectacularly bad. It wasn’t on the margins that he was making mistakes. He was making large, catastrophic mistakes.”
One thing Jackson did confirm for us is that, despite those spinal surgery noises being truly blood-curdling, they’re possibly the most normal part of Duntsch’s procedures.
“I will tell you, even a good surgery, the amount of force that gets used on the human spine in order to do even a good surgery with a good outcome, will give you nightmares for the rest of your life,” the Peacock star said. “Putting a screw into bone in my imagination was always, like, a delicate thing that happens. But no, it’s putting a screw into bone. And that metal-on-metal ‘tink’ sound, that will haunt me forever. That’s real. That’s just something that you hear inside of that surgical theater, and wow.”
All eight episodes of “Dr. Death” are streaming now on Peacock.