A decade ago, my son was diagnosed with high functioning autism. I went home that day and cried, certain that my little boy was doomed to face a life of being doubted and undervalued, that as smart as he was, the social difficulties that so often come with autism would keep him from achieving. I feared he would forever be looked down on by people very much like the executives running the fictional San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital in ABC’s The Good Doctor.
Those prissy execs are just some of the stock characters in The Good Doctor. Of course there are arrogant surgeons (Hill Harper, Nicholas Gonzalez) and residents getting in each other’s pants (Antonia Thomas, Chuku Modu). There’s also the father figure of the hospital president (Richard Schiff). In these things, The Good Doctor is not that different from other medical dramas. But I can forgive the show for all those stereotypes because of the strength of its central character, Dr. Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore), a young man with high functioning autism and savant syndrome, a combination that makes him able to see things that others don’t, but that also makes it difficult to communicate those unique perspectives.
Highmore has nailed it in this performance. Autism is a spectrum, so there’s no blanket statement to describe how someone with autism will behave (despite the definition given by Dr. Arrogant 1 early in the program). Highmore has adopted some mannerisms I recognize all too well: the unusual gait while running, the sensitivity to unusual sounds and to smells, the virtually eidetic memory when it comes to scientific fact paired with painful difficulty in dealing with emotion. Other mannerisms like the hand washing and the fussing with his hair were alien to me but certainly recognizable to other spectrum moms I know.
I also recognized Murphy’s bluntness when he first calls out his fellow resident for the way she initially treated him and the way that treatment changed, and the way he called out Dr. Arrogant 2. I found myself nodding throughout the show at different idiosyncrasies. And I teared up as he shared his reason for becoming a surgeon.
What I didn’t recognize quite so much was the bigoted attitude of the show’s medical professionals toward a person on the spectrum. While I’d feared it when my son was first diagnosed, our family actually never experienced it in our autism journey, which has now led my son to his freshman year in college.
I’ll chalk that up to drama.
The main plot of the story itself felt pretty standard. While the prissy execs are debating whether to hire Murphy, he is at the airport saving an injured child with a MacGyvered device. Along the way, his inability to communicate well to strangers gets him in trouble first with the TSA and then with hospital security. The child isn’t quite out of the woods, and Murphy is at first frustrated in his attempts to get the hospital team to listen to him and see what he sees.
Eventually they do, the child is saved and Murphy is hired — on a trial basis. If he doesn’t work out, his mentor says he’ll resign as hospital president. But while some of the prissy execs seem willing to take that chance, Dr. Arrogant 2 is bent on making sure Murphy does nothing more than scut work in his operating room.
The story is told with flashbacks to Murphy’s childhood, involving an abusive father, an abandoning mother, and a supportive brother. We also see how he first meets the Schiff character, in a scene that is heart wrenching.
Highmore’s socially challenged, scientifically brilliant Murphy feels more emotionally normal than most of the “normal” staff at St. Bonaventure.
There were hints of subplots involving the other doctors that feel a bit like a soap opera, and I didn’t care about those things as much as I did about Murphy’s journey. I’m looking forward to taking it with him.
The Good Doctor airs Mondays at 10/9c on ABC.