It’s got a killer concept
Mary (Caroline Dhavernas) is a successful ER doctor with a unique side hustle. For a fee, she’ll show up after-hours and help you die. Together with her partner Des (Richard Short), a former plastic surgeon who was disbarred after a drug problem, she has a part-time gig providing quality assisted suicide for half the price of a trip to Switzerland.
It rapidly becomes clear that helping people is only a small part of why this deadly duo does what it does. Yes, they’re making $10,000 per illegal assisted suicide (covering their tracks by having the soon-to-be-deceased make a video confession that they’re doing this of their own free will). But Mary already has a well-paid day job. So if money isn’t why she’s doing it, and helping people isn’t really the reason either, what’s going on here?
It’s got a great central character
A lot of thrillers struggle to get the balance right between character and story. Spend too much time telling the story and the characters become chess pieces to be shuffled around; linger too long on the characters and the story gets bogged down. Mary Kills People gets the balance just right, thanks in large part to a great lead performance from Caroline Dhavernas (who played a very different medical professional in Hannibal).
With a good job, a fancy house and two loving daughters, Mary seems to have it all. She’s a character who could easily fit into another, more lightweight show: a single mother struggling to juggle work and home, a skilled doctor who could be from any number of medical dramas. But there’s a darkness in Mary. How far back does it go? Smart and funny she may be, but she’s also a mix of serial killer and contract killer. How far is she willing to go?
If a show about a freelance "Doctor Death" sounds a bit grim and controversial, Mary Kills People knows exactly where you’re coming from. The solution? It never lingers. This is a series that knows it’s dealing with some pretty heavy subject matter, and that there aren’t a lot of laughs to be found in someone’s final hours. But there’s a big difference between acknowledging that late stage cancer is a serious and extremely sad time, and lingering at the scene of the crime. Mary Kills People is there for the former, but it rarely has time for the latter.
On top of a rapid pace which ensures even the heaviest moments never have time to bog the show down, this is a series full of sharp banter and moments that are laugh-out-loud funny. Yes, a scene where Mary and Des help a woman pass away at her favourite beach is a touching moment. But having them walk away bickering while the dead woman lies ignored on the beach is done with dark humour.
... but not that funny
While Mary Kills People isn’t afraid to get some good laughs out of death and dying (some may recall the beloved Six Feet Under?), it’s still a drama, and much of that drama comes from Mary herself. For someone running a criminal enterprise, she’s not always the best at taking proper precautions. The first episode sees her hitting on a patient who comes to her for help in dying. If that wasn’t bad enough, he then turns out to be a cop trying to gather enough evidence to put her away.
It’s increasingly clear that Mary – who has a kind of offbeat intensity constantly bubbling to the surface – is doing this because she gets off on the danger. She simply likes being close to death and having that kind of power. When she says she wants people to have control over when and how they die, it’s hard not to think that she's really interested in her control over people.
It doesn’t mess around
The first season is just six episodes, and there’s a lot of ground being covered. Right from the start the police are hot on the pair's tail, while Grady (Greg Bryk), Des's drug dealer who supplies them with the pentobarbital they use in their assisted suicides, wants to muscle in on their business. Mary’s home life is also a constant factor, as her teenage daughter Jess has her own series of troubles, including a best friend who gets into Mary’s stash of suicide drugs and helps herself... leading to a possibly incriminating trip to hospital.
Throw in a range of ethical issues – to show that their demise is of their own free will, Mary’s clients have to drink the death cocktail rather than having her administer it – and Mary being a bit of a loose cannon, and you have a show that doesn’t slow down. Which is as it should be: after all, with a family and two jobs, Mary is one killer-for-hire with a lot on her plate.
Mary Kills People is streaming at SBS On Demand now.