Few pundits predicted that ABC’s “The Good Doctor” would be this fall’s breakout hit. But they probably should have, given the success of last year’s freshman sensation “This Is Us.” Both shows fall under what some executives are dubbing “Warm Bath TV”: solid storytelling that makes viewers feel good, particularly in a world where they’re constantly being assaulted by distressing headlines.
It’s not just a U.S. phenomenon. Sony Pictures TV co-president Jason Clodfelter said the phrase “Warm Bath TV” was something he constantly heard from global broadcasters last month while attending the Mipcom TV market in Cannes, where international execs said they’re experiencing a similar hunger for uplifting fare.
“You don’t want to live in that dark world right now,” said Clodfelter, whose studio produces “The Good Doctor.” “What ‘This Is Us’ did so beautifully, aside from the emotion, was not [put characters in jeopardy] at every act break. As a result, it felt more natural, and authentic in terms of what these people were going through. That was a nice change of pace.
“When you love your characters and the world and sense of tone, you don’t need an insane amount of plot to put into 42 minutes of television,” he added.
“The Good Doctor” stars Freddie Highmore as Dr. Shaun Murphy, a resident at San Jose’s St. Bonaventure hospital who has autism and savant syndrome, but shows real skill as a surgeon. Hospital president Aaron Glassman (Richard Schiff) recruits him, over the objections of attending surgeon Neil Melendez (Nicholas Gonzalez).
Season to date, “The Good Doctor” is the most-watched drama on TV, averaging 18.4 million viewers when seven days of time-shifted DVR and VOD usage is included. That’s higher than hits “This Is Us” (17.8 million) and “NCIS” (17.3 million). It’s also the No. 1 freshman drama among adults 18-49 (4.3 rating).
The success of “This Is Us” and “The Good Doctor” came after the broadcast networks spent several years trying to chase cable and streaming by programming grittier, serialized fare. Most of those attempts, however, fell short.
“In the development role we have attempted to develop unique characters like this in the past, but because of their desire to chase cable for a while, it often came with mental disorders or addiction,” Clodfelter said. “That felt inauthentic on broadcast.”
ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey, who took over the top network job in 2016, was vocal last year in moving away from chasing cable-like fare and instead looking for programming “that has hope and optimism and positivity at its core.”
“Those are the messages we all need to hear,” she said. “Putting aside political arguments, and it’s been an emotional time for a lot of people because of it, the world itself we’ve had so many natural disasters. It feels like every time we turn around we’re being pummeled by something else. The notion that we can be a part of telling stories that offer a little hope, a little faith, a little positivity, that is what the audience is craving and looking to broadcast TV for.”
For “House” creator David Shore, adapting the South Korean drama “The Good Doctor” for American audiences gave him a chance to return to a medical genre where he had previously found great success, but with an entirely different kind of character. Autistic characters aren’t new to TV, but the idea of a lead character with autism is rare.
“This is a character that networks might have been afraid of putting on TV, afraid that he might not be relatable, 10 years ago,” Shore said. “I think the world is getting better despite some evidence to the contrary. We are watching a character that we’re not used to seeing on TV and we are relating to him.”
And that’s where “Peak TV” has had a positive effect on storytelling: Networks and studios appear more open to telling a more diverse mix of stories. “One of the great things about the fact that there’s such a boom in scripted television is that it creates the space and the room to tell all different types of stories with all different kinds of heroes and heroines at the center,” Dungey said.
The fear that Shore mentioned has to do with centering the action on a character whose development and growth may be different that the traditional series lead. Shore notes that the growth is still there, but it’s just different. “Little things from this character speak volumes,” he said. “We had a scene in an early episode where Shaun turns around and asks his neighbor her name. In any other character, that would be a trivial point within the show. Here, the way it unfolded was a major step for him, and it said so much about where he is and what he’s thinking. It is more difficult for him in many respects to navigate the world. But he is growing and learning, and we’re rooting for him.”
The toughest part of getting “The Good Doctor” right was finding the proper actor for the lead role. That’s where the series lucked out by landing Highmore.
“We needed a young person for this role, so it would limit your pool of experienced actors,” Dungey said. “And then when you’re asking someone to play a character like Dr. Shaun Murphy, you can easily go wrong in so many ways. You can overplay the hand, you can lean too much into the autism, you can make the performance only about that.”
Clodfelter said a number of actors auditioned for the role and “nailed it, technically speaking.” But Highmore, who was just coming off “Bates Motel,” nailed it with his eyes.
“With Freddie, there’s something captivating about those eyes,” he said. “He’s able to project so much emotion into what he’s going through when in reality he’s not always telling you. Which is refreshing here. In broadcast television we’re sometimes guilty of telling the audience too much and not letting the audience discover it themselves.”
Shore jokes that he’s developing a theory that Highmore “has a painting in his attic somewhere and that he’s, in fact, 70 years old.
“The wisdom that that man brings to the work is remarkable,” Shore said. “He very much wanted to embrace an honest portrayal, not just superficial things. This is a role that could very easily have been done very badly. And Freddie has made us love Shaun. He’s also an excellent producer, he gives great notes and he’s on that set all the time.”
Highmore also asked for a stipulation in his deal that “The Good Doctor” would max out at 18 episodes per season, rather than the 22- or 24-episode norm of broadcast TV. “ABC would like as many as they possibly could get, but more doesn’t necessarily mean better,” Shore said.
“The Good Doctor” is a shoo-in for a Season 2 renewal, although Dungey said she wouldn’t make that decision until some time next spring. Dungey said the network is taking care to nurture “The Good Doctor” given the rarity of its early hit status.
“It’s about looking to make sure we continue to maintain the quality of the scripts and the filmmaking itself,” she said. “It could be really easy to tip too far over to a place that feels too schmaltzy, so I think we’re looking really hard at not doing that.”
Shore knows he has time to let the show’s stories breathe, but admits he’s nervous about “The Good Doctor” becoming too big too fast. (In comparison, “House” slowly built into a hit.)
“This is very exciting, but scares me slightly,” he said. “There’s something comfortable in being under the radar a little bit. This is a thrill, but on ‘House’ we started slow and just kept going and going and the numbers kept coming up. I worry about blowback. But we will get to tell the stories we want to tell, which to me is the ultimate test of success.”
On KCRW’s “Screengrab,” we recently discussed the success of “The Good Doctor,” and how it’s welcome news for ABC, Sony and broadcast TV in general: