How The Good Doctor became the year’s biggest new TV hit

The new drama, which stars Freddie Highmore as a surgeon with autism and savant syndrome, has engaged millions of viewers but critics remain skeptical

Ever since Greys Anatomy went haywire and hits like House, Nurse Jackie, and ER completed formidable seasons-long runs, folks have been clamoring for the next great medical procedural. This fall, it seems they got their wish with ABCs new drama The Good Doctor, created by Houses David Shore and based on a Korean series of the same name. Is The Good Doctor great? Well, notexactly, but it does enough to fill the void in a genre thats always been less about medicine than the often galactic, always dramatic goings-on at our favorite fictitious hospitals.

Last week, after just three episodes, The Good Doctor became the most-watched show on US television, surpassing The Big Bang Theory, which has held that title for quite some time despite running on pseudo-comic fumes. Yes most-watched is a superlative thats both widely appropriated and, in the age of multi-platform viewing increasingly irrelevant but 18.2 million viewers, which The Good Doctor reeled in last week, is nothing to scoff at, especially as it trounces flashier fall debuts like The Orville, The Gifted and Seal Team and runs neck-and-neck with CBSs Big Bang Theory spinoff Young Sheldon. It also received a full-season order at ABC after only two episodes and has found a quietly passionate fanbase on Facebook (the shows official page already boasts over 650,000 likes), where fans praise its depiction of autism and attest that the soapy medical plotlines have reduced them to tears. Theres even talk of an Emmy nod for its star Freddie Highmore, of Bates Motel fame.

The premise is simple: Shaun Murphy, played by Highmore, is an autistic surgeon with savant syndrome. His stream of consciousness speaks the language of anatomy, and when the shows particularly keen on calling attention to his genius, organs and veins and glands float above his head like illustrations ripped from a med-school textbook. Hes not Rain Man, says his main advocate at the prestigious St Bonaventure hospital in an attempt to convince the board that Murphy is hirable and high-functioning. To those in the autism community, the show has deftly done just that. The Good Doctor does a fine job of navigating this razors edge, wrote Kerry Magro on the website Autism Speaks, noting that it shows several characteristics that can accompany an autism diagnosis such as social awkwardness, lack of eye contact, playing with his hands during stressful situations. He adds: Freddies take will resonate with many in the community.

As for its entertainment value, The Good Doctor proceeds the way most medical dramas do: each day brings a new patient in need of life-threatening surgery; the doctors fight for stature and opportunity while romancing one another in the process; we discover that Shauns childhood was marred by the gruesome deaths of both his little brother and pet bunny, and hes disciplined for behaving poorly or erratically in front of patients before saving the day with surgical heroics. Its schmaltzy and sentimental, and its probably no coincidence that as hitmaker Shonda Rhimes (of Scandal, Greys and How to Get Away with Murder fame) prepares to leave ABC for Netflix, the network has pushed a new drama to the forefront of its programming. And like Greys Anatomy, The Good Doctor has accrued a wide fanbase in just a few episodes by weaving the day-to-day tasks of surgeons into the larger framework of its protagonists story. In its first season, Greys brought in roughly 18.5 million viewers per episode, and so far The Good Doctor, with more than half of its audience watching the show live and the rest on DVR, is outperforming both that show at the same stage and others in the same lineage, like House and Private Practice.

But before The Good Doctor and last years network breakout This is Us, a non-linear tearjerker about a family with three children who share a birthday, it had been a while since a debut series on either CBS, ABC, NBC or Fox became a ratings powerhouse. Network television was mostly underwhelming or, like The Big Bang Theory, stagnant and formulaic, and so viewers flocked instead to cable (HBO, AMC, FX) or streaming services (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu).

In that sense, network dramas are the new underdogs, at least in relation to the Game of Thrones and Walking Deads of the world. But perhaps they wont be any longer, since both The Good Doctor and This is Us provide the guilty pleasures many people look for in their TV diets: earnest storytelling, very attractive actors doing very noble things, and characters who tug at our heartstrings. Both shows, too, have diverse casts and optimistic outlooks, debuting as the collective national mood called for encouraging, beat-the-odds entertainment in the vein of La La Land, Hidden Figures and Wonder Woman. The recent popular network dramas of the pre-Trump era Empire, Madam Secretary, How to Get Away with Murder, Chicago Med and The Good Wife were somewhat less uplifting in spirit and tone. As David Shore told Indiewire: Theres an honest, unabashed emotionality to this show that I think is very refreshing. It will make you cry in an unembarrassed way. So far, fans agree. Find myself crying every episode, one YouTube commenter wrote. I was kind of getting sick of so many medical dramas but this one stole my heart, says another. In its promotional campaign, too, The Good Doctor, like This is Us, has embraced its emotional resonance: Were not crying. Youre crying, reads the caption to its episode three trailer.

A still from the pilot of ABCs The Good Doctor. Photograph: Liane Hentscher/2017 Sony Pictures Television

As one might expect, whats made The Good Doctor a hit has made it divisive among critics: despite its ratings, it has a meager 43% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Maureen Ryan, writing in Variety, called it both preposterously tragic and a third-rate Greys Anatomy ripoff. That discrepancy between the shows critical reception and its popularity among audiences is one of the most extreme in the websites history, and like last years blockbuster film Batman v Superman, which spawned a wave of think-pieces about the dissonance between critics and audiences, reviewers like the show about half as much as the 18 million who watch it.

Ultimately, critics may be of little significance to The Good Doctor: its now ABCs most-watched Monday drama in 21 years. Unseating The Big Bang Theory alone brought the show a good deal of press, and should it continue to handle autism as deftly as viewers think it does, The Good Doctor will join This is Us as that rare network hit in the age of streaming supremacy.

  • The Good Doctor is on in the US on Mondays at 9pm on ABC and will start in the UK on Fridays at 9pm on Sky Living

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The Good Doctor - Official Trailer - Coming to ABC September 25

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Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore, “Bates Motel”), a young surgeon with autism and savant syndrome, relocates from a quiet country life to join a prestigious hospital’s surgical unit. Alone in the world and unable to personally connect with those around him, Shaun uses his extraordinary medical gifts to save lives and challenge the skepticism of his colleagues. The series is from David Shore (“House”), and “Lost” and “Hawaii Five-O” star Daniel Dae Kim.
The series stars Freddie Highmore as Dr. Shaun Murphy, Antonia Thomas as Dr. Claire Brown, Nicholas Gonzalez as Dr. Neal Melendez, Chuku Modu as Dr. Jared Kalu, Beau Garrett as Jessica Preston, Hill Harper as Dr. Marcus Andrews and Richard Schiff as Dr. Aaron Glassman.
The series is from Sony Pictures Television and ABC Studios. David Shore is writer and executive producer. Daniel Dae Kim, David Kim and Sebastian Lee are also executive producers. Seth Gordon directed the pilot and is also an executive producer.