The Good Doctor – Season 1

The Good Doctor – Season 1

The Breakout Medical Drama Feels Old Hat


The Good Doctor harnesses every trope and cliche of a procedural medical drama while doing virtually nothing to elevate the material. Even with the rare feature of a lead character suffering from a developmental disorder, there are very few moments that escape the tired, overwrought and uninspired vibe of the whole show.

Rating: 3/11


We need to talk about how strangely successful this show is. The Good Doctor premiered on September 25th, 2017 and has, as of writing, aired 12 episodes, which is precisely half of its first season. Since it started, the show has managed to maintain an average rating of about 17 million viewers in total per episode which, for a basic network show in 2017, is nothing short of phenomenal. Put it this way: it took a prestige cable show like Game of Thrones four seasons to rack up those kinds of numbers. This is all worth thinking about because The Good Doctor‘s popularity – while not necessarily indicative of its quality – represents something crucial about the mindset of those who still watch actual broadcast television, as opposed to Netflix or any other of the dozen or so streaming services available.

The show centres on a shy, good-natured young man named Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore), whose supreme intellect and desire to help people leads him to becoming a surgeon. The only problem is that Shaun’s surrogate father, Dr. Aaron Glass (Richard Schiff), has to fight to get him a residency at San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital because Shaun has a high-functioning form of autism. Maybe these don’t sound like the makings of a hit show, but it’s worth considering the era of TV that we’re now experiencing is something of a reactionary one. After almost two decades of Tony Sopranos, Don Drapers and Walter Whites, people are getting pretty damn sick of white male antiheroes filling up their screens.

Another name you could add to that list is Dr. Gregory House of House, a man whose entire vibe was basically, “I fucking hate you, but if you’re sick, I’ll see what I can do.” It’s interesting to view The Good Doctor as a total reversal of House, shifting our protagonist from a misanthropic genius to a fundamentally decent man forced to rise above people’s misconceptions about him (it’s even most interesting when you consider that House creator David Shore also adapted The Good Doctor for American television). The general desire of audiences to spend more time with flawed but basically good people versus ambiguously shitty characters is a huge part of what has made this show so popular, both in the states and abroad.

Sorry if that’s all a bit too much TV theory for a review, I just needed to lay the groundwork for what makes The Good Doctor such a ratings behemoth despite it being… well, an all-round fairly terrible show. And, unfortunately, one of the main reasons for this is that Shaun Murphy is such a difficult character to like and spend time with. Which, by the way, has nothing to do with his autism and everything to do with how The Good Doctors‘ writers choose to frame it. With little nuance or suggestion as to the realities of Shaun’s condition, the show chooses largely to define him by this disorder as opposed to just letting it be one of the many aspects of his personality. He is not, in other words, a doctor who has autism; he is an autistic doctor, which makes the show equal parts misguided and underwhelming.

This also leads to Shaun being the major source of conflict for many episodes, whether it’s when he’s making others uncomfortable or being incapable of conveying some vital piece of info about a patient. This is inherently frustrating, both on the level of his character and the weirdly frequent pushiness and insensitivity of those in Shaun’s orbit. Again, this is not a criticism of autistic people or a suggestion that a worthwhile TV show can’t be made that addresses the disorder; it’s just tremendously clear that this is not that show.

The Good Doctor has no means of assimilating Shaun’s condition within the show’s world, constantly having characters prod at his eccentricities to provoke him or making his autism the driving force of most episodes. This may accurately reflect the prevalent nature of living with autism, but that conceit not only lacks compelling dramatic progression, it also draws attention to Shaun’s “otherness” rather than presenting him as a person just like anyone else. Again – and I can’t overstate this – Shaun’s difficulty isn’t a reflection of his autism so much as a flawed perspective of it. [And I’ll add here “in my personal opinion”, because I am aware that this is a delicate topic and it’s not my intent to piss people off with my views].

I will say that Freddie Highmore’s work here is admirable and helps to make Shaun more palatable than he might have been in the hands of a more overperformative actor. His unusual speech patterns, nervous tics and general awkwardness feel lived in and sincere, helping to craft a man who is afflicted with an endearing sense of eagerness to please. Still, the writing too often insists on over-sentimentalising Shaun’s entire being for Highmore’s acting to count for much. I mean, this is a character who has a maudlin, flashback-dispensed origin story featuring an abusive father, a chipper younger brother, a runaway tale and (I shit you not) a dead bunny. This was around the same time I discovered you can actually detach your fucking retina from repetitive eye-rolling.

But then so there’s this: even if Shaun Murphy was a fantastic character, he’d still be surrounded by this smouldering, fetid garbage fire of a show. Every episode is backed with heavy-handed lessons, criminally shitty dialogue and stupidly exaggerated ethical conflicts. At one point a black physician, Dr. Claire Browne (Antonia Thomas), is forced to care for a Nazi patient to demonstrate that all people are equally deserving of medical care. At any stage in the last 60 years, that would be egregiously clumsy storytelling, but in the wake of 2017 you end up screaming at your television, “Oh, FUCK THAT SHIT!

Not to mention the dozens of cheap Sophie’s Choice-esque dilemmas that the show throws at us: a podcaster must decide between having her voice box removed or potentially living with cancer; a professional gamer can have his brain tumour removed but it’ll permanently damage his motor skills; Christ, in the latest two-parter, there’s a literal Sophie’s Choice of a mother having to choose whether or not to kill one of her daughters to save the other. Plus, the breakneck pace at which they’re cranking out the “high stakes” episodes is ridiculous. Shit, we’re only 12 episodes in and already we’ve had an emergency road trip for a transplant organ, a devastating bus crash involving an entire trauma ward full of patients and an armed robbery involving the main character. It’s fuckin’ exhausting, man.

If I had to reach for some virtue here, I could say that there is always going to be an innate appeal to basic, competent medical dramas, which The Good Doctor usually manages to be. The intrigue of a mysterious illness which can only be overcome with some outlandish, bizarre surgical procedure is the sort of story that basically just has to show up and not shit its pants to be watchable. For my money, I binged almost the entire half-season of The Good Doctor in one sitting, and eight hours (and an unbecoming number of drinks) later I found that it had been vaguely enjoyable on that level. Plus, even when it was abominably terrible, it was pretty fun to laugh or shake my head at.

Still, The Good Doctor remains too scattered, clumsy and treacly a show to be recommendable. Despite appearances, the setting and premise are woefully familiar, the supporting characters deeply uninteresting and the show’s entire vibe rests somewhere between “Meh” and “I miss The Walking Dead“. There’s some “on life support” or “diagnosis: terminal” joke I could make here, but it’s more accurate and satisfying to be frank: The Good Doctor is pretty shit.

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