Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Dr. Death: Cutthroat Conman, on Peacock

The media and academia constantly tell us to trust them, because they know better. Yet, they failed the public spectacularly in the case of Dr. Paolo Macchiarini. The thoracic surgeon was so bad, he is now the subject of the second season of Dr. Death. You can watch all eight episodes or get the whole story in one-shot from the 90-minute companion documentary, John Pappas’s Dr. Death: Cutthroat Conman, which premieres Thursday on Peacock.

For a while, Macchiarini was one of the world’s most respected surgeons and a short-list contender for the Nobel Prize, thanks to his revolutionary artificial trachea replacement surgery. He was so impressive, NBC News producer Benita Alexander fell for him while working on a
Today Show profile. She was so head-over-heels, she accepted all his crazy claims at face value, even including the one about the Pope agreeing to officiate their wedding. Ultimately, that one was a fabrication too far. Once she realized that bogus, she woke up to all his lies.

Meanwhile, Macchiarini’s experimental trachea patients were not faring well. In fact, they were dying. However, Macchiarini was still coasting on the glowing publicity that followed their initial surgeries, leaving two of his colleagues at [the formerly] prestigious Karolinska Institute to deal with the carnage of his dubious treatment. Together they wrote a damning report exposing Macchiarini’s falsified research. Perhaps predictably, the Karolinska administers turned on the whistleblowers rather than its cash cow.

Alexander declined to participate in
Cutthroat Conman, but considering how brutally honest and self-aware she sounds in the audio interviews incorporated from another project, viewers can understand why she did not want to revisit the Macchiarini experience again. Frankly, Peacock deserves some credit for telling the tawdry tale, because it does not reflect particularly well on NBC News.

To their further credit, Pappas and company also force viewers to confront Macchiarini’s victims, many of whom possibly could have been cured with convention treatment. The two-year-old girl will absolutely break your heart.

Not surprisingly, Macchiarini and the Karolinska Institute opted not to participate (beyond issuing a few denials), but Pappas interviews the whistleblowers extensively, as well as the
Vanity Fair writer who broke the story of Machiarini’s bizarre engagement to Alexander and his fraudulent academic claims.

You can see why the Macchiarini scandal appealed to Peacock, both for dramatic and documentary purposes. There is both the Lifetime-esque story of deceptive seduction and the chilling elements of a medical thriller. A lot of involved parties come out looking questionable, including a few corporate relations, but that gives it credibility. Recommended for true crime fans (and
Today Show detractors), Dr. Death; Cutthroat Conman starts streaming Thursday (12/21) on Peacock.