[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from the first two episodes of “The Good Doctor,” titled “Burnt Food” and “Mount Rushmore,” respectively.]
Executive producer David Shore, who had famously created “House,” has shifted to a very different medical drama with ABC’s “The Good Doctor.” “There’s an honest, unabashed emotionality to this show that I think is very refreshing,” said Shore in an interview with Indiewire. “It will make you cry in an unembarrassed way.”
“The Good Doctor” is an American remake of the South Korean drama of the same name by Jaebeom Park. As many fans of k-dramas know, the shows are high on emotion, melodrama, and sometimes even tragedy, and the original series’ first episode, which can be watched for free on DramaFever, is the source of most of the most fraught and sentimental moments in ABC’s adapted pilot — from the abusive childhood and the loss of his pet rabbit and older brother, to surgical resident Shaun Murphy’s (Freddie Highmore) big speech at the end, holding onto a toy scalpel he had received as a child.
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Midway through the second episode, Dr. Murphy asks, “What’s the point of sarcasm?” after encountering yet another sarcastic remark from Dr. Melendez (Nicholas Gonzalez). Such questions appear to be typical of Dr. Murphy and asked without guile or ulterior motive. He simply wants to understand why people are acting in a way that seems inconsistent with their meaning, aka “lying.”
“I like that there’s an innocence to it and a lack of cynicism to it,” Shore said. “Having spent a long time with cynicism — and I loved it and I enjoyed it — that is probably closer to my heart, but I enjoy the idea of going into the world the way a little bit that Dr. Murphy looks at it – just nonjudgmental, asking why we do the things we do.”
Shaun Murphy has both autism and savant syndrome, which help and hinder his ability to be a surgeon. And while “The Good Doctor” is the latest attempt after Netflix’s “Atypical” and SundanceTV’s “The A Word” to depict someone autistic in a thoughtful and sympathetic light, these characters by no means represent everyone with autism. Nevertheless, Shore hopes that even one depiction will help to eliminate some of the misconceptions about autism out there.
“There’s a misconception [that] there’s a lack of emotion within them, that they don’t feel things. They do,” he said. “Having said that, I’m uncomfortable even using any sentence starting with ‘they.’ If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. They are as unique obviously as any one of us. There’s a spectrum. But there is this notion that they don’t have emotion, that they’re not smart because of the awkwardness and interacting with them and how they can shut down.”
It’s this childlike innocence that makes it tempting to dismiss Dr. Murphy or even call him by his first name, Shaun. But this sentiment that he feels, but doesn’t display in a typical way, is also what drives him to become a doctor. In fact, his mission to save lives, especially children’s lives, makes him dogged in trying to treat a little girl who is suffering from an undiagnosed intestinal disorder in the second episode.
“This is a character who would be very easy to do badly,” said Shore. “There is the nature of the character, who’s not good at communicating, doesn’t react in what most of us would consider a natural way. He doesn’t pick up on social cues, he doesn’t give off social cues. And yet, we have to recognize that there’s deep emotionality going on with him and Freddie [Highmore] just completely embodied this character. He communicates that so beautifully without doing any of the obvious things that an actor usually must do in order to achieve that. He moves us without trying to move us.”
Daniel Dae Kim, formerly on “Lost” and “Hawaii Five-O,” owned the rights to the Korean series, making this the first show that has made it to air for his production company.
“It’s something that affects actually so many Americans and actually per capita wise it actually affects more Koreans. It seems to be a global phenomenon,” he said an interview with IndieWire. “My company has always been interested in telling the stories of people we haven’t heard from before. Even though this is about specifically autism and savant syndrome, the themes of feeling marginalized and feeling excluded, even though you have something to offer, is something that resonates with me very personally.”
That marginalization is partly because of the discomfort that many feel around people with autism and not being able to read them.
“It’s just our instinctive reaction to pull away because there’s an awkwardness – they’re not giving us the feedback that we’re used to getting and so we reject them and they hurt when we do that,” said Shore. “So emotionally we’re hurting them, not intentionally usually, but we’re also harming them by not recognizing their capabilities. We’re hurting all of us by not recognizing everybody’s capabilities.”
Added Shore, “It’s the Dr. Glassman (Richard Schiff) speech really, when he speaks to the board, he is speaking in my mind, to the audience: ‘When we hire Shaun, we tell people with limitations that their limitations are not what they think they are and we’re better people for doing it.’ I just think that it’s worth it as a society to spend the extra time to find out who people are. We to some extent are afraid of what is different. We need to recognize that the differences are superficial.”
That is not to say that Dr. Murphy is some autistic-savant medical superhero, misunderstood by his peers. He will have his share of challenges at San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital. During “The Good Doctor” panel at this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, Shore addressed this fallibility.
“He can be wrong,” he acknowledged. “First of all, he can be right and fail in communicating the information, which is crucial. He’s seeing so many details that he may be sometimes seeing things that aren’t there. I assure you, he will be right many, many times, and he will save lives. We want to be honest about this. He will be wrong, and a price will be paid for that… [Also,] there will be consequences for him not following protocol.”
Highmore also revealed what first drew him to the character and what Dr. Murphy will be facing in his personal life.
“Whilst we won’t negate or seek to move away from the very real struggles that Dr. Shaun Murphy will experience by dint of his condition, there will also be moments of joy,” he said. “That’s what is attractive to me in the pilot. There’s a humor to it. You understand what makes him tick. You will find out how and why and who he’ll fall in love with and understand him as a fully formed individual. And I know it seems sort of silly having to almost say it, but I think it hasn’t necessarily always been done in the past.
“He’s not solely defined by his autism either,” Highmore continued. “He moves into this hospital, he’s come from this quiet country life. He is moving to a big city for the first time. There are many things that he’s dealing with that aren’t necessarily linked to his condition.”
“The Good Doctor” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.