“The Good Doctor” is as simple in spirit as its title implies and equally uninteresting. Freddie Highmore plays Dr. Shaun Murphy, an autistic surgeon looking for a new start at San Jose’s St. Bonaventure Hospital. Because of Shaun’s disorder, it’s hard for him to find a job worthy of his exceptional talents. Luckily, he’s got a higher-up in his corner: Dr. Aaron Glassman (Richard Schiff) has known Shaun for years and spends the pilot episode making a passionate case for hiring Shaun, as the skeptical hospital board members sit and wait to interview the titular good doctor themselves.
Bouncing between Shaun’s arduous journey to the interview, flashbacks to his childhood, and the vehement boardroom debate, the first hour isn’t short on drama, but it still lags. Shaun says he’s right, and other doctors tell him he’s wrong. They realize he’s smarter than he looks and eventually bow to his wisdom. It’s a simple formula, and one effectively employed by creator David Shore in his last medical drama, “House.” But the pilot’s depiction of Shaun’s mental prowess comes across strained and confusing, while the other characters are so poorly fleshed out they can’t even suffice as stock bodies for Shaun — and Highmore — to bounce brilliance off of.
Let’s start with Highmore, since he’s far and away the brightest spot of the show. Coming off a magnificent five-year stint on “Bates Motel,” the 25-year-old actor is asked to create the inverse of his psychotic Norman Bates character using similar behavioral ticks: Shaun is a good-hearted, well-intentioned, healthy, and likable man, whereas Norman was a psychotic murderer with serious mommy issues. And yet Shaun is constantly anxious, at least in the pilot, as loud noises, dirty airports, and unexpected difficulties push him toward a breaking point. In “Bates Motel,” that’s usually when Norma would come out, ready to start stabbing.
Though there’s still a lingering sense of dread watching Highmore walk down a similar path as Shaun — as though Norma could still burst out at any moment — he forges a new, trustworthy identity quickly. The tears building up in his eyes (that don’t fall) aren’t drawn from anger, but frustration. Shaun is confused when things don’t connect in the real world like they do in his mind, and it’s already impressive how many nuanced reactions Highmore has created for being told “You’re wrong” over and over again. Anyone doubting the young actor can carry this show will understand his wide-ranging capabilities by episode’s end.
The same cannot be said for his peers. Though Schiff brings the dogged conviction and sagacious demeanor he’s consistently called upon for his roles, his Dr. Glassman gets lost in a mess of contradictions along with the rest of the cast. At one point during his pitch, Glassman tries to compare excluding an autistic doctor to excluding black and female doctors. It’s a messy point unnecessary for the situation that does more harm than good for his case and the show.
Another puzzling implication pops up when the hospital’s secret couple — there’s always a secret couple — gets in a fight over taking sides. Jared (Chuku Modu) wants to be in a relationship, but Claire (Antonia Thomas) wants to keep their affair in the dark. So when their boss, Neil (Nicholas Gonzalez), asks them to push a patient into consenting to surgery, a passive-aggressive fight breaks out culminating in Jared shouting, “If I have to choose between my boss and the woman I’m screwing, well, that’s an easy choice.”
Except it’s not. He’s being an asshole, and the show wants us to think she’s in the wrong. Even the results of that C-story don’t amount to anything other than “Claire is wrong,” and the one supporting character who’s given a logical arc is also the most boring. Neil’s weird solo storyline paints him too simply, and — in case viewers somehow don’t understand this cliched jock surgeon — Shaun spells it out: “You’re very arrogant. Does that help you as a surgeon? Does it hurt you as a person? Is it worth it?”
But the insurmountable problem with “The Good Doctor” is that there’s not really a problem to be solved. The pilot is entirely reliant on seeing Shaun as some sort of superhuman, but it fails to exemplify what makes him so special. He’s far nicer and more reliable than Gregory House ever was, making complaints about his lack of empathy utterly moot, and when he works on a patient, things just get silly. The show makes Shaun’s autism look like either a memory booster, as he stares at patients’ symptoms and remembers things he reads (wow! he has a memory!), or a visual aid, like when he stares at a screen and sees something no one else can see (which the audience can’t see either).
The VFX pushes these scenes way over the top. Even if you cut the creators some slack for trying to emulate “House’s” neat animated trips inside sick people’s bodies, it’s hard to watch the episode and think, “Oh, now I get how autism can help Shaun be a better doctor.” And that’s just it: “The Good Doctor” wants Shaun’s autism to help him and hurt him; to make him a better doctor and a liability; it’s trying to use autism as a rationale for explaining how this guy got to be so smart, and maybe it did, but that doesn’t come across.
In “House,” Gregory’s pill addiction was a detriment to his brilliant mind and it exacerbated his bad attitude. It was a problem to be solved, without an easy fix. In “The Good Doctor,” Shaun is who he is: His autism isn’t going away. If he gets fired, the show’s over, so let’s not pretend that’s going to happen. With that in mind, you’re just sticking around to watch a good doctor be a good doctor. For fans of the genre, Highmore almost makes “The Good Doctor” worthwhile, but you need more than one good man to save this messy makeover.
“The Good Doctor” premieres Monday, September 25 at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.