Examining autism in Freddie Highmore medical drama

“The Good Doctor,” a medical drama developed by the creator of “House,” stars Freddie Highmore as the protagonist. Highmore plays a surgeon with autism and savant syndrome./ Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

From “Grey’s Anatomy” to “Chicago Med” to “The Resident,” TV shows about doctors seem to be duplicates of one another. There is always the recurring theme of a hospital drama coupled with exploring the lives of the doctors. And at times, they can be superficial, as these TV shows do not really match up with what goes on in an actual hospital. One can get tired of them, preferring to watch medical dramas that explore new territory and go beyond the standard protocol of the genre. “The Good Doctor” is, in some ways, that TV show. Centered around Shaun Murphy, a resident surgeon at St. Bonaventure Hospital with autism and savant syndrome, the show depicts Murphy’s trajectory as he chooses to use his medical knowledge to save lives. Of course, this comes with challenges, as Shaun has to stand up and show his superiors that he belongs at St. Bonaventure.

When I first saw the trailer for “The Good Doctor,” what caught my attention was the fact that Shaun Murphy has autism and savant syndrome. I have two autistic brothers, so I was immediately curious to see how Shaun was going to navigate the medical world. I was also curious to see how Freddie Highmore was going to handle the part. The pilot episode eventually aired and as soon as I started it, I was hooked. The first scene started out with the meticulous morning ritual Shaun has. He has to time everything he does, including brushing his teeth and taking a shower, which is a characteristic some autistic people have. He has to do everything neatly and perfectly. For a show that deals with autism, it is important to accurately depict the ways in which people who have it live, and this sequence does a good job of that. Then, as the episode progresses, we are given glimpses of Shaun’s life as a child. He was bullied, had an abusive dad and had a mom who didn’t really care about him. The show explores the his relationship with his brother, who was the only person he could lean on.

“The Good Doctor” also does a good job of slowly introducing us to the superiors at the hospital, both the ones who support Shaun’s residency at St. Bonaventure, and those who do not. The superiors who are against him include Dr. Neil Melendez and Dr. Marcus Andrews, who argue that Shaun will have a hard time communicating with patients. The episode that focuses on the meeting in which they discuss whether or not to allow him in gets a little tedious, as the same arguments are repeated over and over, going in circles. However, the president of the hospital and Shaun’s mentor, Dr. Aaron Glassman, knows Shaun is a genius and wants him to come to the hospital. We are also given flashbacks to Shaun’s introduction to Dr. Glassman, thus allowing us to see what a significant influence he has had on Shaun’s life. It will be interesting to see how the dynamic between the two progresses.

The best part of “The Good Doctor” is when Shaun has to think about how to save a patient’s life and a visual of the patient’s body appears. This is a glimpse into how Shaun’s mind works. He is able to visualize what the problem is and as a result, always come to an accurate diagnosis. However, the show lags at certain points and the plot seems quite repetitive. Just like every medical drama, there are a couple of patients that need saving and some drama outside of the hospital room and that is it. Being that this show is a medical drama, it is still clichéd. The way the show approaches autism sets it apart from the competition, but the plot needs revamping and still is missing something fresh. It will be interesting to see the direction the show will take for the rest of season one, and hopefully season two.

Freddie Highmore’s acting is superb. He deserves the rave reviews he has received for the way he is able to bring Shaun Murphy to life. Playing an autistic person with savant syndrome seems hard, but he does it effortlessly. He is also able to capture the awkwardness and brilliance of Shaun in a way that makes you want to root for him. Shaun has a lot to learn and one thing that also makes the show interesting is that each episode seems to feature a teaching moment for Shaun. These moments include learning what sarcasm means, doing scut work, not being accepted, understanding transgender patients and dealing with an armed robber. “The Good Doctor” comes from David Shore, the creator of the medical drama “House,” which is about a doctor who is antisocial and an addict, but nonetheless, a genius. It seems that David Shore likes to make TV shows about unique doctors. However, despite the fact that “The Good Doctor” has been criticized for being a “House” clone, this is not an accurate description; even though both are medical dramas, the protagonists of the two shows are dramatically different from each other in the experiences that shape their perspectives and approaches to medicine.

Overall, “The Good Doctor” is a show that must be watched because it has the power to communicate to viewers that autistic people and people with savant syndrome can flourish in a demanding and competitive field like medicine. It is time for TV shows to incorporate issues that happen in real life because not everyone gets to experience or see them first-hand. “The Good Doctor” is progressing into a great show, and I am excited to keep watching to see what is in store for Shaun Murphy.

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