As technically unsophisticated as a talking head, “Dr. Peter” is unforgettable, both in its simplicity and its impact. More than any ribbon worn on any Hollywood lapel, Canadian television has helped bring an identifiable human face to AIDS.
Peter Jepson-Young was a Canadian physician diagnosed with AIDS in 1986 and given nine to 14 months to live.
Four years later, using himself as the model/guinea pig, he began a highly personal and evocative weekly news segment — most of it no more complex than looking directly into the camera and telling the truth — to help explain his homosexuality and his disease, explore their misconceptions, introduce harsh realities, and combat both old and new prejudices.
He lived to make 111 episodes of a powerful video diary, which HBO has condensed into a single hour of stunning purity.
Over the course of two years, Dr. Peter, as a nation came to know him, reveals his physical deterioration, emotional oscillations, constant concerns and increasing fears courageously and without shame. He is so unselfconscious and generous with his need to reach beyond himself to demystify his fate that his potentially ghoulish odyssey is anything but; at its best — and much of it is just that — his ineluctable walk toward death is mystically life-affirming.
There are some truly wonderful moments along the way. Some are about life: a ski trip and a visit from his 9-year-old niece. Some are about death: creating a living will and, most moving of all, choosing a piece of earth in which to be buried. But all are real, and all overflow with Dr. Peter’s undiluted decency.
Of course, we are witness to many changes over time. He goes blind. Lesions cover his body. His shape bloats. But his humor and spirit remain strong, tested and battered, but strong nonetheless. His self-appointed mission is reaching out , and that’s what he does until the last possible moment.
This is rare television. It is television with grace and truth. It looks at suffering not to exploit it but to try making sense of it. It is television that brings tears: tears for its own affirming emotional integrity, and tears because , somewhere along the way, Canada’s American cousins seem to have forgotten that shows like this are even possible.