The Good Doctor—A Window into the Unknown

Commentary, Film Reviews

Rebecca Reese

The Good Doctor is a show that has been raising eyebrows since its first trailer premiered. The show follows the life of a young, up-and-coming surgeon named Shaun Murphy (played by Freddie Highmore). However, Murphy faces more than just the stress of being a new resident at the highly rated San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital. He also must deal daily with autism, savant syndrome, and the judgement that comes along with these conditions. Many of his colleagues are skeptical if he will be able to make it as a surgeon, and the hospital even has a power struggle about whether to hire him as a resident.

Autism is defined as “a complex developmental disability; signs typically appear during early childhood and affect a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others.” Autism is considered a “spectrum disorder,” because it affects people differently and to different degrees. Even though there is no certain cause of this disorder, it has been proven that early diagnosis and support precede better outcomes.

Savant syndrome is “a rare, but extraordinary, condition in which persons with serious mental disabilities, including autistic disorder, have some ‘island of genius’ which stands in marked, incongruous contrast to overall handicap.” This syndrome affects one in ten people who suffer from autistic disorder. Whatever the strength of the handicap, savant syndrome is always connected to a remarkable memory. This is seen in the show through Dr. Murphy’s visions when he is thinking through a patient’s symptoms. In every episode when he is trying to figure out what is wrong with a patient, he pictures the human body and medical textbooks in his mind and follows the trail of what could be causing the issue. But it is not just in his head, it is on the screen, so that the viewer can also follow along with his ideas.

Dr. Murphy proves that he knows what he must do to save a person and that he can handle a situation even under pressure in the first episode. He has just flown into bustling San Jose, California from quiet Casper, Wyoming, and a construction crew drops a sign which crashes into a glass stand and hits a young boy. The boy passes out, and his neck is severely cut. Dr. Murphy realizes that the man trying to help the young boy by applying pressure on the laceration is actually pushing down on his trachea, which means that the boy is no longer able to breathe. He has the man to move his hands up the boy’s neck, which allows him to breathe. Dr. Murphy then realizes that the boy’s veins in his left arm are popping and his chest is rising oddly and determines that this must mean that the left lung is in distress. Dr. Murphy then takes matters into his own hands by creating a contraption to begin artificial respiration for the boy by using things that he finds around the airport. Because of this quick thinking, the boy lives. Shaun then appears before the board and tells why he wants to be a surgeon; it is this speech that moves the hearts of the board to see that he is just like them. He is passionate and serious about saving lives.

In this same episode before Dr. Murphy arrives at the hospital, the President of San Jose St. Bonaventure, Dr. Aaron Glassman (played by Richard Schiff), pleads with the board to accept Dr. Murphy as a resident. He goes so far as to risk his own job by promising that if Dr. Murphy ever had to be fired for misconduct or a mistake that he would also step down since he himself advocated for him. After this final plea and that moving speech by Dr. Murphy, the board agrees to bring him on staff. However, Dr. Marcus Andrews (played by Hill Harper), the head of surgery at the hospital, realizes what Dr. Glassman has agreed to and makes it known to Dr. Glassman that he will be watching Dr. Murphy closely as well, because if Dr. Glassman is removed as president then he, Dr. Andrews, will have the opportunity to become the president of the hospital. So, tensions are high as Dr. Murphy begins his first day on the job.

But what is it about this show that draws people in and continues to make it one of the most watched television shows of this day? It is clear that people are obsessed with hard-hitting medical shows, take for example Grey’s Anatomy which is in its fourteenth season and still keeps audiences captured. However, this hospital drama takes a different turn than the latter; it doesn’t focus as much on the romantic relationships within the hospital or the drama which comes along with those relationships. Instead, this TV series shows more of the politics which go on behind the scenes in a hospital: the drama of hiring someone with a disability, the confusion that can come while working with said person, and even at one point the racial tension which inevitably arises (anywhere that a person works).

I believe that this show gives an insight into a world which cannot be understood unless living in it. Every day mothers abort or give away their children when they learn that the baby has a disability; disabilities are hard to understand and often make people uncomfortable. However, in recent times, there has been a new interest in trying to understand people who live with conditions like autism, intellectual disability, and other disabilities. Some of these disabilities may affect how someone interacts with others or even how they look. So, I think that this show has taken it upon themselves to try to represent these people and give them a voice. But also, The Good Doctor gives people without a disability the opportunity to better understand those who do.

Dr. Murphy often has flashbacks about his childhood, and these usually pertain to a situation that he is in at the moment. For example, during a time when Dr. Murphy is beginning to have romantic feelings for his neighbor, Lea, he has a flashback to a time when he and a girl from school were in the woods during recess, and she said, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” Little Shaun was confused and refused to do what she asked, but then all of the other kids started coming around him and laughing at him for being in the woods with her. This causes Murphy, in the present, to be cautious with how much he opens up to Lea.

In another episode, Dr. Murphy has a young patient who looks remarkably like his late brother. It is during this episode that the viewer learns more about the special relationship which he had with his brother. Since they had to run away from home, his brother, even though he was younger, became like a father figure to him. Dr. Murphy even uses his time with this boy patient to find closure for his brother; he had gifted To Kill a Mockingbird to his brother, but he never got to finish it. So, Dr. Murphy read the book to the boy, and when he got up to leave the room it was clear that he had found comfort and a sense of calmness through finishing the book with the boy who so much resembled his own brother.

But The Good Doctor also has a lot of laughs. Since Dr. Murphy struggles to read social cues, he often finds himself in situations where someone may try to treat him with sarcasm, but he takes them seriously and replies with an intelligent remark. However, he then realizes what sarcasm is and begins to call people out when they are using it, which I find hilarious. What I find even funnier is when the other doctors are trying to be gentle and “beat-around-the-bush” with a patient, but Dr. Murphy just comes straight out and tells them what is wrong. Sometimes that can get him in trouble, but sometimes the patients appreciate his straightforwardness.

There is so much more that could be analyzed in this show, and I believe that as the show progresses it will continue to be a vessel for the special needs community to be heard. It takes a lot to get people’s attention in this world without waving around half-naked women or filling three-quarters of the show with nonsensical drama, and this show is the prime example how to keep people watching without those crude additions. The Good Doctor offers so much more than just the latest hospital drama; it offers a new perspective, a better understanding, and even a few laughs along the way.

(1). https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism

(2). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2677584/