I have a confession to make: I began watching ABC’s The Good Doctor with extremely low expectations. Atypical, another recent series featuring an autistic protagonist, was a tire fire of bad stereotypes and worse representation. Awkward autistic white guy is nothing new or groundbreaking.
The Good Doctor desperately wants to believe that it is groundbreaking. Apparently, none of the unnamed “autism consultants” involved in the show told David Shore or the writers that there are actually plenty of autistic doctors and med students. So far, The Good Doctor is basically House, if House was an adorable talking kitten instead of a pill-popping curmudgeon. I actually really enjoyed House in all of its formulaic glory, but I’m not sure adding a dash of inspiration porn and subtracting a pinch of nihilism will lead to an enjoyable show.
That said, The Good Doctor had a few glimmers of excellence. The talent involved in the show is top notch. It’s not the worst portrayal of autism I’ve ever seen. I’m actually interested to see how the season develops.
‘Hello. I’m Dr. Sean Murphy.’
We kick off with Dr. Sean Murphy (Freddie Highmore) leaving his home in Wyoming to start a job at a hospital in California. As he walks past a soccer field, a ball his his foot. Dr. Murphy flashes back to being beaten by other children during a soccer game. It is unfortunately accurate. Autistic people report considerably higher rates of bullying. After a pause, Dr. Murphy kicks the ball back to the boys playing soccer and continues on his way.
There is a montage of traveling by bus and plane, followed by a chaotic airport. The sound levels are turned way up on things most people would consider background noise . I understand that this is the show’s writers trying to portray the sensory assault Dr. Murphy and other autistic people experience in airports, but it would have been nice for them to include some kind of adaptation for Dr. Murphy. Speaking as an autistic person who was just in an airport yesterday, the man needs to buy himself a pair of earplugs.
A sign crashes through a glass awning, injuring a young boy. Another doctor rushes to help. Dr. Murphy utters his first words of the series “you’re killing him.” He goes on to explain the anatomical differences between an adult and a boy in halting speech. “Hello. I’m Dr. Sean Murphy. I’m a surgical resident at San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital.” He makes eye contact with the other doctor. It’s a clearly scripted greeting. In its first few moments, The Good Doctor avoids one of the greater pitfalls of Atypical — Reducing its main character to a pile of symptoms. Dr. Murphy is certainly autistic, but the writers have chosen a “show, don’t tell” approach that is infinitely more humanizing.
Unfortunately, then the real framing of the episode starts. A hospital board is deciding whether they should have hired Dr. Murphy as a surgical resident, for no other reason than his autism. The prejudice Dr. Murphy faces is a sledgehammer. In real life, the prejudice autistic people face is usually far more subtle.
‘High functioning. Is that our new hiring standard?’
‘I need a knife.’
At the airport, Dr. Murphy attempts to McGuyver some surgical tools. He goes to security and asks a TSA agent for a knife. The TSA agent responds sarcastically, “A knife? Sure. Anything else?” Sean responds, “I do also need a narrow six-foot tube and high proof alchohol and gloves and baggage handling tape, but I’m going to get the alcohol from the Duty Free Store and the tube from the back of a soda machine.” After he is refused again, Dr. Sean Murphy just grabs one of the knives and runs. He is then chased and tackled by TSA agents. “You idiot. You’re lucky we didn’t just shoot,” one agent declares. The mother of the boy who was injured intervenes. “No! He’s trying to save my son’s life!” And miraculously, the TSA agents let him go.
White privilege is stealing a knife from the TSA, running with it, and being allowed to just leave. In real life, the TSA would probably have shot the panicking mother for good measure. Of course, Sean miraculously saves the boy’s life. In flashback Sean has been kicked out of yet another school. He is rocking back and forth and petting his rabbit. His father, who is physically abusive, hits his brother, hits him, and throws the rabbit across the room. In the present, Sean notices a problem with the injured boy’s pulse. He has difficulty communicating the problem and ends up getting thrown out of the hospital. This is followed by a montage of Dr. Murphy trying to get into the hospital. For some reason, the hospital doesn’t call the police to remove him. OK, the reason is a combination of white privilege and narrative convenience.
‘The rationalization is exactly the same.’
We flash back to Sean taking his rabbit to the doctor with his brother. His rabbit is, unsurprisingly, dead. The doctor is the same doctor who is now the president of the San Jose Hospital where Dr. Murphy was hired. Sean’s brother decides that they will run away from home together.
We flash forward to the board of directors where Bad Board Member pulls out the canard about autistic people lacking empathy. Hospital President we’re supposed to like then makes a direct comparison to prejudice against an autistic doctor and prejudice against a black doctor or a female doctor. This is made even more awkward by the fact that the hospital president is a white man. What should have been a speech about tolerance came off as a white man lecturing a black man about his own experiences. I understand that the writers meant well here, but they really need to be more aware of racial dynamics. They also need to be aware of the fact that black autistic people and autistic women exist. There are even people who are black, autistic, and women!
In surgery, the little boy takes a turn for the worse. The surgeons decide to go find the “weird guy” who initially saved the boy’s life. What follows is a formula many people will recognize from House. The medical mystery is seemingly solved. Then it isn’t.
In the board room, the board members are voting on ratifying the decision to hire Dr. Murphy. Dr. Murphy has already been hired. This vote is probably being recorded in minutes. This is definitely illegal, but nobody seems to be aware of that. The board members then change their minds because they see a Youtube video of Dr. Murphy saving the boy from the airport’s life.
‘His name is Adam. Traumatic pneumothorax. I’m hungry.’
In flashback, Sean Murphy and his brother are living in an abandoned bus. Sean asks if they can get a TV. “No.” His brother replies. “Why?” He responds. “Because we’re poor, dude.” Sean’s brother gives him a gift, even though it isn’t Sean’s birthday. It’s a toy doctor/surgical kit. Sean touches the toy scalpel in wonder. It is the same toy scalpel that has been seen throughout the episode, and that Dr. Murphy carries with him. Sean’s brother ruffles his hair the same way Dr. Murphy ruffles his hair as an adult.
In surgery, Dr. Murphy’s theory is finally vindicated. He goes to get lunch with the president of the hospital. The president of the hospital brings him up to speed on the board situation before leaving to politick for Dr. Murphy more. Dr. Claire Browne joins him for an extremely awkward conversation. Dr. Murphy points out Claire’s hipocrisy — She didn’t seem to want to be his friend until he demonstrated he was skilled. Sean is drawn away before she can answer to go get an even stronger case for his EEOC complaint. Or at least that’s what I assume is happening when a room of people talk about him like he isn’t even there and question his competence solely on his autism. Then, the room expects him to give a speech about why he wants to be a surgeon. I’m personally surprised he doesn’t have something scripted from medical school applications. In flashback, Dr. Murphy’s brother dies in a warehouse accident. In the present, Dr. Murphy’s answer comes out cryptic, but apparently the board is moved. He certainly displays his empathy for everyone. There is sweeping music and applause.
Dr. Murphy goes into surgery with Dr. Melendez and his team. Dr. Melendez tells Dr. Murphy that he will only ever be allowed to do suction, and will never be allowed to do anything more complex. There is also the implication that he will not be able to work as a doctor past his residency. This is front of the entire team. At this point I was basically screaming “EEOC complaint!” at the screen. Dr. Murphy rightfully calls Dr. Melendez “very arrogant.” The episode ends.
- Giving Dr. Sean Murphy a backstory involving bullying and domestic abuse gave him reasons for doing what he does beyond just “autism.”
- I’m still a sucker for that House medical mystery formula.
- There wasn’t a single moment where Dr. Murphy’s autism was clearly intended to be a laugh line. Thank God.
- I get that it’s product placement, but using Jim Beam to disinfect is fairly ridiculous. At least use a clear alcohol.
- l’m pretty sure you can’t make someone’s malpractice insurance more expensive just because they have a disability.
- The Good Doctor is teetering on the edge of inspiration porn. Its sweeping strings and soft focus come off as overly melodramatic.
- Dr. Murphy is incredibly childlike. I really hope that changes over the course of the series. Autistic adults are not children. We are adults.
Neurotypical Bullshit (NTBS)-O-Meter
- San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital is an Equal Employment Opportunity Comission federal lawsuit waiting to happen. Are none of the board members or hospital employees remotely aware of the Americans with Disabilities Act and anti-discrimination laws in general? There are dozens of witnesses to discussions about Dr. Murphy’s fitness based solely on his disability. I know it would make for a much shorter show, but Dr. Murphy could easily just sue the pants off of the hospital and get as big a TV as he’d like.
- The exchange around whether “high functioning” is a hiring standard and whether a board member is “high functioning” isn’t clever. It’s basically a roundabout way for one character to call another character the R word.
- Why does everything about autism have piano or staccato strings? The soundtrack to The Good Doctor and the theme from Atypical are bizarrely similar.
So what did you think? Good, bad, or just indifferent? Weigh in on the comments below.