The Buzz: 'The Good Doctor' Suffers from a Terminal Lack of Creativity
The selling point of ABC’s The Good Doctor is right there in the title. It is a medical drama about a young physician, Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore), who wants to make a positive impact on the lives of his patients and co-workers. Brilliant as he is emphatic, Murphy is a character who appears to be motivated exclusively by these noble intentions. But as the first season of The Good Doctor has shown, it's impossible to build a television series-- at least, a good one-- on intentions alone.
The pilot episode (“Burnt Food”) offers a perfect example of how and why The Good Doctor is such a tough pill to swallow. Murphy arrives at a San Jose airport, unsure of whether his interview at the local hospital will prove successful. Then, like a gift from the gods of convenience, Murphy happens upon an injured child, and manages to save his life before a dazzled crowd. We then cut to a boardroom, where the staff of the San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital voice their concerns about hiring Murphy as a surgeon due to his autism. They’re just about to deny him when someone runs in and exclaims that the young doctor is trending on Twitter: “You need to go online! The YouTube clip already has over 200,000 views!”
Murphy is hired, of course, and The Good Doctor promptly tries its hand at every medical trope in the book, hoping one will connect with the viewers. In addition to Murphy the gifted outsider, we have the begrudging mentor, the stuffy board members who oppose change, and a romantic subplot that feels like a reject from one of Grey’s Anatomy’s lesser seasons (the less said about the latter, the better). None of them resonate in the slightest. Even with the proven talents of showrunner David Shore, The Good Doctor offers so little in terms of originality that having the main character be an unorthodox genius comes off as an accidental irony.
Shore and ABC certainly deserve credit for discussing autism, savant syndrome, and their overall treatment in the present day, but they neglect to say anything meaningful about them in the process. Instead, they treat Murphy’s condition as a kind of superpower, showing him to be a doggedly heroic soul capable of doing extraordinary things. The series goes as far as to concoct a tragic childhood backstory for Murphy, a lame attempt at character motivation that feels copied out of a cheap comic book. There’s nothing wrong with telling a story about an autistic character that plays up his strengths, but The Good Doctor appears to overcompensate and give us a reductive, surface-level understanding of the condition as a result.
Even when Murphy has difficulty adhering to social norms-- instances where his autism could make for unique drama-- the series feels the need to spin them into bland and positive attributes. We’re never given a chance to see Murphy get angry or look foolish in front of others, and therefore are unable to relate to him in any sort of meaningful way. Shore’s previous series, House (2004-12), worked so well because the titular doctor, Gregory House, was a flawed human being that was prone to vanity, substance abuse, and lapses in judgement. We could sympathize with him. Murphy hasn’t an ounce of personality by comparison, with his career and his condition being his only notable traits.
Another series The Good Doctor attempts to borrow from is BBC’s Sherlock (2010-). Not only does Murphy share the moptop and slender build of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes, but his brilliance is depicted in a similarly visual manner, with the images and equations in his head appearing onscreen. But where Sherlock used these sequences to embellish rather than explain the mystery, The Good Doctor errors on the side of too much exposition, as if the writers were afraid that we’d get lost if we weren’t visually refreshed on the case every few minutes.
These flaws are made all the more frustrating when you realize that Freddie Highmore is actually quite good in the titular role. He sells the character’s external ticks (his inability to make eye contact, his jittery manner) with panache, and his ability to exude a quiet decency helps convey some of the more saccharine subplots. In the event that the writing and the supporting cast of The Good Doctor greatly improve, Highmore’s performance here could very well equal his rightfully praised turn in Bates Motel (2013-17).
Overall, The Good Doctor is suffering from a terminal lack of creativity. It has an interesting premise, and a commanding lead performer in Highmore, but it will need to forge its own identity and stop (badly) cribbing ideas from its predecessors to be deemed fit for enjoyable viewing.
New episodes of The Good Doctor air on Mondays at 10:00pm ET on NBC.