We get it: There’s an overwhelming number of television shows right now. The streaming landscape is an impractical maze, and the good stuff easily gets lost in the shuffle. But most of us can still find one show that cuts through the noise. We call this “appointment viewing” — or the time you carve out in your busy schedule to watch the show you’ll want to unpack the next day with your friends while it’s still on your mind. Tune in here each month to read what writer Michel Ghanem, a.k.a. @tvscholar, deems worthy of a group-chat deep dive.
Over the past year of “Appointment Viewing,” we’ve covered everything from prestige miniseries, including Dead Ringers, I’m a Virgo, and A Murder at the End of the World, to lighter fare such as Platonic and Dreaming Whilst Black. December’s heavily strike-impacted release schedule is lighter than usual, but Peacock’s Dr. Death is a solid offering for those looking to dig into an intriguing, disturbing true-crime story of a doctor (played by Edgar Ramírez) whose unethical practices in trying to invent biosynthetic organs led to gruesome deaths — and the girlfriend (played by Mandy Moore) who exposed him.
So, do we really need another true-crime series?
Dr. Death is a true-crime-drama anthology series focused on medical malpractice, based on the Wondery podcast of the same name. The first star-studded season aired back in 2021 and followed Christopher Duntsch (Joshua Jackson), a Texas-based doctor who had the habit of maiming his patients’ spines. The second season stars Edgar Ramírez as “Miracle Man” Dr. Paolo Macchiarini, a charming motorcycle-riding doctor conducting well-funded, state-of-the-art medical research at the top of his field on artificial tracheas and stem cells in the early 2010s. He romances former NBC News reporter Benita Alexander (Mandy Moore) when she tapes a television segment about his experimental procedures. She, along with three whistleblowing doctors, eventually end up exposing Dr. Macchiarini’s life-threatening deceptions — both personal and professional.
If this story sounds at all familiar, you might be thinking of Bad Surgeon: Love Under the Knife, the three-episode Netflix docuseries released at the end of November, which includes interviews with the main players involved in the scandal. And if you’re anything like me and would prefer to watch a dramatization of the story, Dr. Death is a disturbing, well-acted version of what really happened. It’s a compelling look into how difficult it is to call out corruption or unethical behavior in industries where a lot of money is at stake, particularly in the medical field when a star doctor has a major god complex. Three composite characters represent the four real-life whistleblowers out of the prestigious Karolinska Institutet — Dr. Nathan Gamelli (Luke Kirby), Dr. Ana Lasbrey (Ashley Madekwe), and Dr. Svensson (Gustaf Hammarsten) — and form the more exciting side of the show as they band together to take professional and personal responsibility for their role in enabling Macchiarini’s faulty work.
Where can I watch it?
All eight episodes will be available to stream on Peacock on Thursday, December 21. Since it’s a season-long anthology series, don’t worry too much if you haven’t watched the first season and want to skip ahead because you love Mandy Moore and miss This Is Us (same). The series is run by Ashley Michel Hoban, who brought over a few writers from her time writing and producing for The Girl from Plainville, another true-crime series from last year.
Dr. Death is not the most bingeable series, so I would recommend breaking these eight episodes into digestible chunks. The first four episodes are more about setting the table for what’s to come in the second half as we slowly uncover the unethical and nefarious nature of Macchiarini’s work. You will likely want to watch the fifth episode on its own, which is a terrific bottle(ish) episode that stands out boldly in the season. It focuses singularly on Luke Kirby’s Dr. Gamelli as he’s left to care for one of Macchiarini’s patients while her health degrades after receiving her new trachea. The stakes now properly established, you’ll fly through the final three episodes that bring Macchiarini to justice.
Okay, but how disturbing is it?
Side effects from watching Dr. Death may include queasiness and reckoning with your corporeality. I’ve watched decades of Grey’s Anatomy and ER so I’m pretty familiar with the feeling of abject disgust at the frailty of our bodies brought on by medical dramas. There was plenty of that in Dead Ringers, too. But a story you know actually happened in real life is unsettling on new levels. As patients struggle to breathe in their new tracheas, their coughs echoing in the new biosynthetic chamber in their throat, I’d reach to my own throat, thankful for the privilege to breathe with ease that I mostly take for granted. I suppose this is partially why our culture enjoys true crime so much: the relief from knowing what you’re watching isn’t happening to you, and the satisfaction from knowing the perpetrator eventually gets caught.
Dr. Death reminds me a lot of Dopesick in how it structures timelines between the various victims and the doctors themselves and how it reveals the challenges of stopping the medical-innovation train once it’s left the station. Since Macchiarini’s tracheas were only approved for compassionate use in terminally ill patients, it’s sort of unclear in the first few episodes what the extent of the damage really could be. By then, we know Macchiarini is nefarious, but unless you’ve listened to the podcast or read up on him beforehand, it takes a solid five episodes until it’s fully clear how sinister his actions were.
Not everything works about this season. There are some confusing jumping between time and places in the first few episodes, and I found the medical scenes far more interesting to watch than the central romantic tryst. I also wish Judy Reyes, who plays Moore’s best friend and coworker on the show, had more to do here. But Dr. Death is a worthwhile watch during a month with very little to offer in terms of new television premieres, and not a story you’ll forget about anytime soon. See you back here for more TV next year!