Focusing on Dr. Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore), a young surgical resident who has autism and savant syndrome, “The Good Doctor” shines a light on what life is like for adults with similar characteristics. It’s a medical drama with a universal message about how we should define ourselves beyond our limitations, no matter what those might be. Well-paced, with solid performances from a diverse cast, the show is both thoughtful and entertaining.
Richard Schiff (“Ballers,” “The West Wing”) plays Dr. Aaron Glassman, President of San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital and mentor to Shaun. He hires Shaun before seeking the approval of the hospital’s board members and in a contentious meeting, one accuses him of making Shaun’s hire personal. He snaps back: “Letting things get personal is how we make it matter.” It’s an idea that sets the stage for the show’s doctor/patient interactions.
A running theme in almost every case is the boundary between the personal and the medical. In one episode, a woman has a cancerous tumor in her abdomen. Shaun’s fellow surgical resident Dr. Jared Kalu (Chuku Modu) sees the difficult and life-threatening procedure as an opportunity to test his skills while their colleague Dr. Claire Browne (Antonia Thomas) reacts emotionally and offers the woman hope, promising her that she will live to see her son’s wedding. Which one is being a “good” doctor?
Shaun’s response to the woman’s case is to suggest matter-of-factly that she will probably die but they could remove one of her kidneys to more easily extract the cancerous mass. It’s an unconventional approach with no promise of success and one he offers with no empathy. Yet, Shaun’s inability to personalize is countered with flashback scenes to his childhood. We learn that his father was abusive, his younger brother was his best friend and he became a surgeon because he saw his brother die in an accident when they were young. He may not appear to others to be capable of emotional connection but the flashbacks offer a glimpse into his inner life. Shaun feels things just not in a way that his colleagues understand. It’s an impactful way to both personalize the character and depict autism.
Shaun’s boss, Dr. Neil Melendez (Nicholas Gonzalez), accepts that Shaun has extraordinary medical skills but is less accommodating about his inability to communicate with patients. Gonzalez plays Neil as the typical arrogant attending surgeon but adds a few layers to make him less predictable. Hill Harper (“CSI: NY”), as Dr. Marcus Andrews, the head of surgery, is a highlight, and his alpha male performance adds tension to the story. He wants Glassman’s job and is even less accepting of Shaun than Neil is.
Highmore is well cast as Shaun, delivering a natural performance that allows him to disappear into the character. He makes you want to watch Shaun’s journey and root for him along the way. Despite a somewhat predictable pattern of Shaun’s genius ideas saving lives, “The Good Doctor” is a good show that offers a unique take on the medical drama.
“The Good Doctor” is on Mondays at 10 p.m. EDT on ABC.
— Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing’” and the recently released “The American Television Critic.” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.