By Peter Hummers on December 30, 2021
Life is short, the art long. (Hippocrates)
The classic Hippocratic oath, the oldest and most widely known treatise on medical ethics, distinguishes between the surgeon and the physician while exhorting both: “I swear by Apollo the physician, and Aesculapius the surgeon, likewise Hygeia and Panacea, and call all the gods and goddesses to witness, that I will … take care that [the sick] suffer no hurt or damage.”
If it were only that simple.
In medical drama, the rogue doctor usually breaks the rules in the service of a patient: bypassing protocols to prescribe unapproved medicines in hail-Mary attempts to save a life, for instance. Occasionally there are accounts of so-called “angels of death,” who sabotage patients before saving them dramatically in bids for heightened recognition, but real life generally provides us with the strangest stories. (I read once that author Tom Clancy wrote that fiction is harder to write because it has to seem to make sense, a stipulation that reality brushes aside as often as not.)
Young, charismatic and apparently brilliant, Dr. Christopher Duntsch (Joshua Jackson, The Affair), a rising star in the Dallas medical community, was building a flourishing neurosurgery practice, but patients entering his operating room for routine spinal surgeries are left permanently maimed or dead. As victims pile up, two fellow physicians (Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock, and Christian Slater, Mr. Robot) set out to stop him.
In the 1993 film Malice, Alec Baldwin played an arrogant doctor, who, in a chilling scene during an inquest, declares, “I don’t have a God complex—I am God!” In Dr. Death, Baldwin plays a good-guy, by-the-rules doctor who, with a dedicated but free-spirited colleague (Slater), aims to take down a surgeon who apparently thinks he is God. Based on a 2018 podcast of the same name, Dr. Death is about a real-life neurosurgeon, Christopher Duntsch, who has killed two patients and maimed others through a combination of egotism, hubris, incompetence and denial.
We follow Duntsch from college, where left-right discrimination problems cause him to be dropped from the football team, although in later life he describes himself as the star of the team—and seems to believe it.
An undeniably hard worker, his name appeared on several papers and patents, and he took part in a number of biotech startups. But by failing to follow through, Duntsch incurred over $500,000 in debt. Disastrously, he decided to turn to neurosurgery, which can be lucrative.
Dr. Death is the fascinating but disturbing tale of how Christopher Duntsch fell through cracks in the Texas and Tennessee regulatory medical frameworks until two physicians took notice, put together a case against him, and still failed to attract the attention of hospital administrators and medical boards.
In The Affair, Joshua Jackson played an antagonist in one person’s memories, who was revealed to be a protagonist, so as Dr. Duntsch he is able to slip effortlessly between apparent protagonist and actual, deadly, antagonist. Alec Baldwin and Christian Slater are also excellent as the odd-couple doctors who flirt with extra-legal solutions with which to keep “Dr. Death” out of the operating room. 91% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Dr. Death was about a malevolent surgeon; Dopesick is about how physicians can go wrong (with corporate help). Adapted from the nonfiction book Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America, this Hulu original series is about Purdue Pharmaceuticals (still in the news) and how they effectively reengineered the medical community’s approach to pain, allowing them to sell vast amounts of OxyContin after they also found their way past the Food and Drug Administration’s regulations with some ingenious loopholes.
In many ways Dopesick mirrors Dr. Death. Both are based on true stories, and here too there are two investigators, Assistant US Attorneys Rick Mountcastle (Peter Sarsgaard) and Randy Ramseyer (John Hoogenakker), who, after hearing several coinciding stories of OxyContin addiction, begin to investigate Purdue Pharma and are shocked at what they find.
They are shocked more when regulatory agencies and the Attorney General don’t want to hear it. DEA agent Bridget Meyer (Rosario Dawson, Unstoppable) independently comes to the same conclusions as Mountcastle and Ramseyer and joins the fray.
In 1996, black-sheep son Richard Sackler (Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man, Boardwalk Empire, The Looming Tower, Fargo Season Three) is desperate to take the presidency of his family’s pharmaceutical company from his father, and systematically dismantles the obstacles standing in the way of widespread use of the company’s pain medication OxyContin, a narcotic.
From adding “pain” to the four medical vital signs (Body Temperature, Pulse Rate, Respiration Rate, Blood Pressure) and convincing doctors to show a 1-10 pain chart to their patients, to nefariously contributing language to warning labels and coining the phrase “breakthrough pain” as a way to get doctors to increase dosages, Sackler’s campaign works only too well.
Michael Keaton plays the composite character Dr. Samuel Finnix, a traditional country doctor who falls for the hype, until over-prescribing Oxy to his patients (his friends) results in tragedy.
Creator Danny Strong has said that although the show’s action ends in 2007, the story continues, and he’d like to append a second season to what was originally conceived as a miniseries. 93% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.
(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)
Click here for more Stream On: What to watch on TV columns by Pete Hummers