‘Dr. Death’ Season 2 Review: Edgar Ramírez Impresses in Engaging but Limited True Story

Peacock’s adaptation of the hit podcast follows the crimes of Dr. Paolo Macchiarini, but largely avoids examining the real monster behind the surgeon mask

Edgar Ramírez as Dr. Paolo Macchiarini in "Dr. Death." — (Peacock)

A curious thing happens in the second half of Season 2 of the Peacock anthology series “Dr. Death”: the doctor in question largely disappears from the show. “I was wondering when one of us was going to ask — where the f—k is Macchiarini?” Nate (Luke Kirby), a fellow doctor attempting to expose the fraudulent surgeon at the center of the show, wonders aloud at one point.

It’s a pertinent question, both literally and figuratively within this adaptation of the podcast of the same name. While most of its first half focuses on the deceptive glamor of Dr. Paolo Macchiarini (Edgar Ramírez), a real-life surgeon who engaged in widespread scientific and medical misconduct, he rarely appears on screen in the latter stretches. The final episodes center instead primarily on others — his former lover, along with Nate and his two other colleagues — and the drama behind their efforts to prove Macchiarini’s misdeeds. The doctor becomes literally absent from the show, but Nate’s question rings another way: Where is Macchiarini, the real man behind the surgeon mask? And who is he really?

The show appears somewhat reluctant to try to figure that out, the core blemish to an otherwise entertaining entry into the bad-doctor true-crime subgenre. Our introduction to Macchiarini comes in two different settings that the show shuffles back and forth between. The first is in his early work at the prestigious Karolinska Institute, where he is presented as a pioneer of a new kind of regenerative medicine: after bathing an artificial trachea in stem cells, he is able to place it in a dying patient, where it’ll supposedly grow into a living, breathing windpipe. It’s a breakthrough that, he claims, will essentially allow for on-demand organs and reshape medicine forever. As one might expect, his claims are from the truth, even as he goes on to operate on several patients, to devastating consequences.

Edgar Ramírez and Mandy Moore in “Dr. Death.” (Peacock)

Fast forward a couple of years, Macchiarini meets Benita (Mandy Moore), a television producer who begins to conduct a story on his groundbreaking work. In the process, she becomes swept away by his impressive life: a handsome, jet-setting, motorcycle-riding surgeon whose shiny life is only matched by the passion he has for patients whose lives he is determined to save. Soon, she falls for him, blurring the line between her work and her feelings.

Ramírez plays the role of suave sociopath well; there is what initially appears to be a sturdy, grounded nobility in his turn as Macchiarini that feels believable — a quality that only makes the monster underneath that much more unnerving. And yet, the turn from Jekyll to Hyde never feels like it truly arrives, as the horrific truths are accentuated mostly in the facts and realities that are left in his wake, far after he’s left for another country, another patient.

Of course, there is an unknowable aspect to any story involving psychopathic con men — how can we ever really understand people that seem to act beyond what is human? But the show is strangely reluctant to understand or depict who Macchiarini truly is, or most importantly, what motivates his actions. Save for a couple moments in the finale, the mask mostly remains intact.

Edgar Ramírez as Dr. Paolo Macchiarini — (Photo by: Scott McDermott/Peacock)

As Benita begins to catch onto Macchiarini’s lies, she travels to Spain and sees a vacant lot where there was supposed to be a house that they were planning to move into within days. What exactly was the plan? she asks herself incredulously. This unanswered question, on a purely practical level, echoes across the show — to what end exactly was Macchiarini conducting his widespread and deadly malpractice?

We get an answer somewhat peripherally, in the way the series prods at the flawed, corrosive nature of institutional medicine: cutting-edge hospitals like Karolinska require boatloads of funding, and funding requires the appearance of successful research from star doctors like Macchiarini, careful scientific vetting be damned! The more frightening truth — something that a sharper show could have explored — is perhaps that Macchiarini is less a murderous sociopath, but simply an unfeelingly pragmatic man who understands how the medical system works.

Gustaf Hammarsten as Dr. Svensson, Luke Kirby as Dr. Nathan Gamelli, Ashley Madekwe as Dr. Ana Lasbrey in “Dr. Death.” Season 2 — (Photo by: Barbara Nitke/Peacock)

But, as Nate and his colleagues fight to reveal the truth and come up against institutional backlash, the show commits more to becoming a procedural about exposing the bad doctor’s crimes. And it’s a relatively engaging one at that, anchored in particular by Kirby, who is often good at calibrating his emotions just enough to steer the show away from falling into soap opera drama.

Then again, that kind of melodrama is the allure of true-crime stories, even while there is horribly real-life tragedy and pain at the heart of it all. But “Dr. Death” mostly avoids cheapening the actual terror and injustice of its source material — perhaps, in that sense, the show seems to say, Macchiarini, the real one underneath all the lies, doesn’t deserve the extra dimension.

“Dr. Death” Season 2 premieres Friday, Dec. 21, on Peacock.


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