I knew The Good Doctor was in trouble within the first two minutes of its pilot.
I can’t imagine a world where I don’t know about ABC’s new drama, because almost anyone who’s known me, who knows I’m on the autism spectrum and knows I consume a lot of media, has asked “Have you seen The Good Doctor? What do you think?” It’s about Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore), an autistic med school graduate who leaves his small country town behind for a new life in San Jose, where his mentor Dr. Glassman (Richard Schiff) has invited him to do a surgical residency at St. Bonaventure, the prestigious hospital he presides over. The other hospital board members, particularly head of surgery Marcus Andrews (Hill Harper), are more than a little squirrelly about bringing in a surgeon who has issues with communication and bedside manner. Andrews, who’s been measuring his dick against Glassman’s for quite some time, sees this as a chance to take the older doctor out at the knees and eventually be rid of him. The show follows Murphy as he struggles to adjust to his new life while the hosptial staff struggles to adjust to him.
Fine. Awesome. I love it. I love this show in theory. I love the idea of movies and shows that put anyone on the spectrum front and center, and doesn’t just make them comic relief. I never really had a Shaun Murphy to look up to when I was growing up, mostly because we didn’t realize back then how extremely varied autism can be from person to person.
And on top of that, Freddie Highmore in the lead? His work as Norman Bates on Bates Motel is one of the most underappreciated performances in all of television. I couldn’t have been more excited to see what he does with this, and I’m mostly impressed(*). There are moments in his performance over the two episodes I’ve seen that are uncomfortably close to how I would react in similar situations, like the exact way he stammers when suddenly thrown on the spot, or how he hesitates to knock on the door of someone he really needs to talk to because he doesn’t quite know how, or how he shuts down when he’s getting a lot of praise or affection because he doesn’t know how to process it. For the most part, his character plays to a stereotype, and oh boy are we about to get to that, but Highmore makes it as honest as he can. I have trouble blaming him beyond agreeing to do it in the first place.
(*I should acknowledge a debate within the autistic community about whether autistic characters should be played by autistic actors. I’m of two minds; I’d never object to increased visibility and representation—it’d cut down on Rain Man syndrome for sure—but society as a whole has just started to grapple with autism being as large a tent as it is. This is a goal, and it’s going to take work; until then, I think autism is something that can be adequately “acted” as long as you put the work in, and I believe Highmore has.)
Everyone else, however, I’m taking straight to the woodshed, with their first sin being that shot of Shaun leaving his childhood home, and walking down the sidewalk…following a neat, imaginary white line that marks out the path he’s following.
Because he lives a neat, strictly regimented life.
Honestly, I don’t have much of a personal problem with that sort of characterization of an autistic lead. I wish it wasn’t the only characterization, but I can still buy it as real. I also don’t have a problem with the Sherlock-style overlays of medical texts that the show uses whenever Shaun is recalling a random bit of medical knowledge; it could be more creative, but it’s a quick, flashy way of conveying information. My problem is that when you shove that stereotype in my face with things like that neat white line, over-emphasizing something that Highmore demonstrates just fine on his own. When devices like that are needlessly deployed, everything else feels less like honesty and expediency and more like laziness.
This is honestly the short of The Good Doctor‘s issues: a classic case of cutting with a chainsaw when a scalpel was called for. Adapting the show from a popular Korean drama I haven’t seen, David Shore, and/or whatever bull-headed ABC execs refuse to get off this show’s jock, are so desperate to make you feel something that they can’t just leave it at “small-town autistic man moves to the big city and tries to make good.” No, when Shaun observes a couple holding hands, keeping vigil over their dying son, it’s not enough that Highmore’s face and pilot director Seth Gordon’s framing (Gordon directed Horrible Bosses, Baywatch, and The King of Kong) tells you so much about just how little affection he’s known in his life. Oh no. That hand-holding is our cue to flash back to young Shaun getting slapped around and his pet rabbit thrown against the wall by his abusive father because “HE’S NOT NORMAL” while his mother watches helplessly. It’s not enough for him to want to be a doctor despite not appearing to have the capacity for it. He has to have a kid brother who looked out for him but died tragically after they ran away from home.
There’s nothing wrong with any of these things—the brother in particular should be a powerful motivator. But it’s written in a way that feels extraneous, and through Gordon’s lens, it plays as utterly fucking laughable. It’s like he and Shore saw Walk Hard and didn’t realize it was a spoof. Seriously, I hate to be mean, but every time I think back to how the little brother died—by falling off a traincar in an abandoned yard while playing hide and seek with Shaun and some other kids—my mind immediately jumps to “machete fight.”
You know what would’ve been amazing? If we learned about this stuff AFTER we got to know present-day Shaun, because present-day Shaun carries this show just fine. The scenes where he works with an off-duty MD to help a kid that’s been critically injured in a freak accident at the San Jose airport are fantastic. If you’ve seen the pilot, try to imagine a version of it that cut out those lame-ass flashbacks and spent more time on that. More time in Shaun’s point of view, more time with his unique perspective, more time watching him use that perspective to find inventive solutions to problems, in defiance of everyone’s assumptions about who he is. A pilot that actually made a stronger case for Shaun to be a dynamic lead instead of asking you upfront to feel sorry for him. Now imagine learning more about his tragic past later in the season, after we’ve long had a sense of who he is beyond his diagnosis, in ways that allow for more nuance than “My dad was an asshole because he resented the fact that I couldn’t fit in,” or “My brother was the kindest, coolest person in the world and then he suddenly died.”
It could work, even if stringing Shaun’s past out like it’s some big mystery (which I’m not advocating, just that it should be kept in the past until it’s germane to the present) could backfire in its own right. But that assumes the show is even interested in Shaun to begin with.
Look, I absolutely believe that hiring an autistic surgeon would be a cause of consternation amongst hospital staff, but the antagonism here is just slightly north of what you’d find in Hallmark Hall of Fame movies. First of all, I have a hard time buying that, in Liberal-ass Bay Area California, someone would admit flat-out that they’re against having an autistic person on their team. In my experience, anybody with that issue would go right to concern trolling: “Look, I’m all for inclusion, but a good surgeon has to be able to communicate clearly with his surgical team, he has to have good bedside manner, he’s going to be under loads of pressure and he’ll be working long hours, and when you make a mistake in this line of work, somebody pays for it with their life. Can he really handle that?” Marcus Andrews (who, again, leads the charge against Shaun’s hiring) does all that, but he pretty much just smugly calls it out as autism with no care as to how it looks.
This is an actual exchange that happens in the pilot, after Andrews goes through the trouble of defining autism for
the audience the board:
Glassman: He’s not Rain Man. He’s high-functioning, he’s capable of living on his own, capable of managing his own affairs.
Andrews: “High-functioning?” Is that our new hiring standard?
A human, well-rounded villain is a beautiful thing, especially on TV where the viewers will hopefully spend 13-22 hours a year with the guy. But there are few things more satisfying than watching a paper-thin yet punchable villain chew scenery and ultimately get put in their place; Gaston in Beauty and the Beast comes to mind. If that’s what The Good Doctor wants to do with Andrews, fine, but to sell such an act, you need a certain amount of charm that Hill Harper doesn’t bring to the role. I’ve got no reason to give a shit about Andrews whenever he’s on screen; he’s not fun to hate. He’s just another smug punk who wants the boss’ job and skimmed Niccolò Machiavelli’s page on BrainyQuote for advice on how to get it. He puts the “banal” in “banality of evil.”
Let’s put a pin in that, though, because this whole argument that Glassman has with the board—which at one point has him comparing Andrews’ prejudice against Shaun to prejudice against African-Americans, in a way that’s technically accurate but unintentionally discomforting—is ultimately rendered moot, after video of Shaun saving the kid at the airport goes viral. Now, that should effectively end any discussion on whether or not Shaun Murphy has a place at St. Bonaventure; the board can either congratulate the kid on a hell of a first day of his residency, or dismiss him and get dunked on in the press and social media. That wave of bad publicity could get even worse if Glassman decides he’s got nothing left to lose and spitefully leaks to the press that Shaun was dismissed because of concerns about his condition. If he got any bites off that, the line of lawyers knocking at Shaun’s door would stretch around the block.
None of this is considered when the board sees the YouTube video. Andrews calls it “a piece of publicity,” but no service is paid to the implications of this publicity. Andrews looks like a child who has to share his favorite toy with the weird kid, yet he’s so convincing to others—despite the talent on display in that video—that Glassman has to offer up his head if it doesn’t work out in order to shut him up. When the head of the foundation that funds the hospital invites Shaun to speak for himself, he gives a nice speech about how sad he was when his pet rabbit died and his brother died, and wanting to be a doctor so he could help people who got hurt like they did. It’s simple, direct, from the heart, and quite appealing. But it’s couched entirely in his diagnosis and his tragic history, not his talent. Hours ago, the board had voted almost unanimously to override Shaun’s hire on behalf of Andrews and his concerns. Now, they’re applauding as the foundation head welcomes Shaun to St. Bonaventure; they’re essentially hiring him for his autism moments after rejecting him for his autism, and such naked hypocrisy isn’t nearly as triumphant or validating as the show acts like it is. This just feels like rich people congratulating themselves on their diversity hire, and I swear, one of those rich people is David Shore from behind his keyboard.
It’s fair to be a little proud of yourself, as a writer, for executing an idea few people have ever done. But at this early stage, I see more interest in the idea than the character. The second episode is a good example of this; it wants to illustrate the seemingly basic aspects of the job that Shaun has to struggle with, and there’s some good ideas there. For somebody who’s never had a sense of tact and lived with a very idealized view of medicine, I can see how life as a surgical resident would be difficult. It’s even more difficult when said resident compels himself to order tests on paitents based on small things being off—you know, just to make sure. To its credit, the show agrees that Shaun’s bedside manner is not his best trait. However, there’s little sense that the problem with the excessive testing is that tests are expensive and time-consuming over what are ultimately mild concerns. Instead, Andrews and Shaun’s direct superior, Dr. Melendez (Nicholas Gonzalez), just seem pissed that Shaun is being thorough, like what kind of crazy nerd wants to make double sure that everyone leaves this hospital with nothing to worry about? It’s so important that Andrews and Melendez be THE BAD GUYS, not just people with valid concerns who happen to be pricks.
That’s what happens when you’re all about the idea: you make some good guys in favor of the idea, some bad guys against the idea, and you put them at odds with the understanding that the good guys are supposed to win. When you’re about the character, you look at all sides of him/her, the good and the bad, and you build your supporting characters based on what will help that lead grow. Sometimes this means your lead character has to be wrong, and the thought of writing a character with an oft-pitied behavoral diagnosis as being in the wrong at any point can be…troubling, to say the least.
But the alternative is this actual reaction I found to The Good Doctor‘s pilot: “It feels like a fired surgical resident got yelled at too much and he’s hiding behind autism to get his revenge in his screenplays.” I don’t know what’s sadder: The fact that this line of thinking exists, or the fact that I can actually see how he came to feel that way. We’re not going to advance the autism narrative by telling stories of how facsimiles of us triumph over adversity. We need to be characters. We need to triumph over our own adversities, even if it just means making peace with them and finding others who are willing to do the same.
Honestly, I’ll keep watching. Highmore is too good in this, even if he’s hamstrung by his scripts. He helps lay a strong foundation for the show; there’s just not enough mortar between the bricks, and there’s still time to step back and reconsider what’s being built. I hope that happens; we need more Shaun Murphys on TV. Now, I doubt David Shore is a big fan of Deadshirt and that he’ll ever know my disappointment, but I didn’t write this for him.
No, I wrote this for the people who keep asking me if I’m interested in this show. To put it simply, yes, I’ve seen it, and you might think it’s good, but we deserve better.
The Good Doctor airs Mondays at 10/9c on ABC.