Last year, NBC’s charming family saga This Is Us captured America’s hearts and minds with its tear-jerking, mystery-laden plot twists. Fast-forward to 2017, and it looks like the ratings successor to This Is Us has scrubbed in: the surprisingly stirring medical drama The Good Doctor.
Executive-produced by David Shore (House) and based on a 2013 Korean drama series of the same name, the ABC show centers on Freddie Highmore’s Dr. Shaun Murphy, a resident with autism and savant syndrome who joins the surgical team at the prestigious San Jose St. Bonaventure. While his mentor and the hospital’s president Aaron Glassman (Richard Schiff) recognizes his potential, the same can’t be said for arrogant attending surgeon Dr. Neil Melendez (Nicholas Gonzalez), who worries about Shaun’s ability to communicate and refuses to let him operate.
Thus, the series becomes an inspiring tale about Shaun struggling to triumph over not only the constraints of his autism but those set by the powers that be. Five weeks into its freshman year, The Good Doctor is already the most watched drama of the season, dethroning CBS’ perennial juggernaut NCIS, with an average 17.8 million viewers tuning in. It’s also besting its network sibling Grey’s Anatomy in the coveted 18-49 demographic with a 4.1 demo rating (ratings are live-plus-seven). It’s a level of success Shore and Highmore (who also serves as a producer) didn’t predict.
“I never expect it, but you tell stories that you know are resonating with you, and then you find out that it’s resonating with a lot of people,” says Shore.
So why are so many people checking into St. Bonaventure? Sure, The Good Doctor offers your standard medical thrills — like Shaun and his co-worker Dr. Claire Browne (Antonia Thomas) performing surgery on a liver in the middle of a highway — but the show’s star and producers believe audiences are mainly responding to its unabashed yet never maudlin sentimentality. Case in point, Glassman’s emphatic defense of Shaun in the pilot: “We hire Shaun, and we give hope to those people who have limitations that those limitations are not what they think they are, that they do have a shot! We hire Shaun, and we make this hospital better for it. We hire Shaun, and we are better people for it.”
“What I love about this show is that it is unapologetically from the heart,” says executive producer Daniel Dae Kim (Hawaii Five-O), who had been trying to develop the series for American television since 2013. “There’s no cynicism in this character. So many leads on television we see these days are antiheroes, [but] Shaun is the anti-antihero.”
Highmore’s restrained yet not emotionless portrayal has also resonated within the autism community. Shore has heard from multiple people who have found the series inspiring, including one mother who told him that her son, who is on the spectrum and has struggled with depression, agreed to resume therapy after watching the first episode. “You hear stories like that and you realize the responsibility you have, and it makes you feel good,” says Shore.
That nuanced handling is the result of countless hours of research, including collaborating with consultant Melissa Reiner, who has worked as a therapeutic companion to children diagnosed with autism, and who is involved at every stage of the writing process. “She’s always there for guidance, to make sure we continue to learn and grow in our understanding of Shaun, just as Shaun does too,” says Highmore. Adds Shore, “The whole idea of Shaun not responding well to questions,” which we learned in episode 3, “came from discussions with her.” The writers have also taken great pains to ensure they aren’t treating his disorder as a superpower. “There have been a couple of times in scripts where [we’ve gone], ‘Jesus, you know what? Shaun needs to lose here,'” says Shore. “Within individual cases, it’s not simply Shaun riding in on a white horse and saving the day.”
As the season moves forward, the series will continue to explore who Shaun is outside of the hospital and how his unique perspective affects other parts of his life, including dating. Teases Highmore, “We find out [with whom] and why Shaun starts to fall in love.”
The Good Doctor: fighting world weariness with sincerity and heart.
The Good Doctor airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on ABC.