“The Good Doctor” Challenges Preconceptions Perhaps Too Much

I have a lot of mixed emotions about ABC’s new medical drama “The Good Doctor”. The main character is surgical resident Dr. Sean Murphy played by famous child actor Freddie Highmore. You may remember him from the 2005 version of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and Finding Neverland among other roles. My favorite of his films was “August Rush” in which he played a foster child who is a musical prodigy who goes on a journey to find his real parents. That one brought me to tears many times.More recently he played Norman Bates in his teen years in the TV series “Bates Motel”.

The gimmick in this particular show is that Dr. Murphy is an autistic savant.

We’ve already seen a number of other TV dramas depict characters with Asperger’s syndrome which is a form of autism that manifests itself mostly as extreme social awkwardness. My favorite such characters were Max Braverman played by Max Burkholder on the TV series Parenthood along with his mentor Hank Rizzoli played by Ray Romano. Another good example was Jerry “Hands” Epperson on “Boston Legal” played by Christian Clemson. We’ve even seen portrayals of surgeons with Asperger’s syndrome when Mary McDonnell guest starred on three episodes of Grey’s Anatomy as Dr. Virginia Dixon. Although Sheldon Cooper from “The Big Bang Theory” has never been officially labeled as having Asperger’s, a number of commentators have suggested that he exhibits many of the characteristics.

However unlike all of these Asperger’s examples, Sean Murphy goes way beyond the simple social awkwardness that we’ve seen in any of these other characters I’ve just mentioned. They do not describe his form of autism as Asperger’s Syndrome. It is just described as “autism”. This character exhibits a much more extreme awkwardness of personality. Highmore plays him with a very childlike voice and broken speech pattern more akin to someone like Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Raymond Babbitt in “Rain Man”. The childlike quality of his personality more closely resembles an adult with Down Syndrome.

Naturally when someone encounters this man-boy the last thing they would think was that he would be capable of being a doctor of any kind let alone a talented surgical resident. In the opening episode there is a meeting of the hospital staff in which they attempt to reject his entry into the surgical residency program. His cause is championed by hospital president Dr. Aaron Glassman portrayed by former West Wing staffer Richard Schiff. Glassman literally puts his career on the line and says that if Dr. Murphy does not succeed in the program, he offers to resign as the hospital president. Most strongly opposed to Murphy’s position is surgical chief Dr. Marcus Andrews played by Hill Harper who you may recognize from Homeland, Limitless and Covert Affairs.

Theoretically one would expect me to be extremely sympathetic towards a character who has a disability and is attempting to overcome people’s extremely low expectations of his capabilities. But the way this particular character is portrayed, I’m finding myself squarely on the side of Marcus whose attitude is “Get this freak out of my hospital and away from my patients.”

It’s apparent that each week Dr. Murphy is going to use his alternate way of thinking and perceiving to diagnose patients and save their lives in ways that escaped the attention of the so-called normal doctors. Without this proof of his medical genius there would be no way he would be remotely considered capable of doing the job. There’s more to being a doctor then simply coming up with brilliant diagnoses and having skill with a scalpel. The ability to communicate and collaborate with colleagues is an essential part of the job for which Murphy is totally unsuited.

The fact that he was given the opportunity to take the job, stretches the credibility of the TV show almost to its breaking point. I think the only way to enter into the story is to consider it science fiction. Imagine an alternate reality where such a person could get a chance to take a job for which they are seriously deficient in necessary skills.

We get lots of flashbacks to Murphy’s childhood. We learned of his abusive parents, that he ran away from home with his brother and they attempted to live on their own, and of his brother’s tragic accidental death. The death of his brother along with the death of his pet rabbit led him to the field of medicine. He couldn’t save either of their lives but maybe he can save someone else’s. We also get glimpses into his relationship with his mentor Dr. Glassman who is been in his life since his childhood and the loss of his brother.

These flashbacks serve to illustrate his approach to events in the present day. But even further stretching the credibility that this person could be taken seriously, during the flashbacks Murphy goes into an almost trancelike stare as he recalls the events. Someone will ask him a question and he goes into this trance while we watch the events of his past play out. When the flashback is over, he is still standing there with a blank look on his face while everyone wonders what the hell is wrong with him. Then having gained the perspective he required from the flashback, he comes up with an answer to whatever was asked of him. The fact that he is not fully present in the current moment further stretches the credibility that anyone would or should take him seriously.

Clearly the intent of the authors and producers of the program is to challenge us to accept people who are “different” and not impose our prejudicial limitations upon them. After watching three episodes and despite watching him use his medical brilliance to save multiple lives, I’m still not convinced he can do the job. Maybe I’m like the racist fans of Archie Bunker who didn’t see him in a negative light but saw him as a hero. Maybe I’m on the wrong side of what the creators of the show intended. But I can’t shake my perspective even though one would expect me to be sympathetic.

I would not find credible a television show about a person like me who attempted a profession that required physical capability beyond my capacity to matter how sympathetic of a character I might be.

Apart from all of this, show is a really very well written, well acted, medical drama. While Murphy is the primary character, he is not the sole focus of the story. There is the typical politics and competition between the other surgical residents, the egos of the attending physicians, and the politics of hospital management that are the staples of medical drama shows like Grey’s Anatomy and ER. On that level, the show works pretty well. The stories of the patients that they treat are compelling. The other characters besides Murphy are three-dimensional and considerably more believable than Murphy.

For now I’m going to sort of hold my nose and continue to watch the show to see where it goes. The non-Murphy parts of the story are sufficiently interesting to be entertaining and I’m curious to see what they do with the Murphy story as the show progresses.

So as I said at the beginning, I have very mixed feelings about this program but for now I’m giving it a very cautious rating of “I’m watching it”.

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