There are many upstanding shows in the new fall TV season, which started in September. However, as is typical, very few have to do with disability or disability-related issues. Currently, the American Broadcasting Company, better known as ABC, is attempting to reach this valuable demographic with two shows, “Speechless,” which just started its second season and new show “The Good Doctor.”
My personal favorite and the subject of this review is the new drama, “The Good Doctor.” Freddie Highmore stars as an aspiring surgical resident, Shaun Murphy, at St. Bonaventure Hospital.
What makes the show different is that its lead character, Murphy, is a person with both autism and savant syndrome. For those who are unaware of savant syndrome, it is a condition in which a person demonstrates one or more profound and prodigious capacities or abilities far in excess of what would be considered normal, yet often also has significant deficits in other areas of brain processing.
Throughout the show, Murphy is trying to navigate life as a surgical resident. The premise of the show focuses on Murphy going through his residency to become a surgeon. The writers do a classy job of switching between focusing on his disability and focusing on telling a good story. It is clear that his disability plays a role in his life but it is not the primary thing that the show is focused on.
To this point there have been 4 episodes that have been extremely well written to capture the nuances of autism and savant syndrome. More intriguing for me is the character development of Murphy and the show’s supporting characters. That may be because I have a background in theater and drama.
Murphy sees medical issues that other doctors miss but because of his autism, he misses social cues and nuances. In one episode a neighbor asked if she could borrow batteries. He gives her the batteries but by the end of the episode he knocks on her door and asks for them back. Another incident where Murphy misses social cues occurs at the hospital. His patient interactions are not reflective of typical doctor patient communication. Rather than being delicate and reassuring with the patient, Murphy just blurts out a diagnosis. Likewise, in the second episode a patient has a tumor which is suffocating her aorta. After recommending a rather risky solution, Murphy states outright that if she doesn’t go ahead with the surgery “she’s gonna die.” Due to his lack on social discernment, his demeanor when giving this pronouncement is also inappropriate.
The show also depicts Murphy’s interactions with other characters who are pursuing their surgical residency as well. In the third episode Murphy and Dr. Claire Browne are sent to pick up a liver for a transplant. I will not spoil the end of the episode in case anyone reading this hasn’t seen it yet, but throughout their journey to retrieve the liver, Browne explores more about Murphy and his disability. By the end of the episode she and Murphy have developed some sort of a rapport because she’s figured out he doesn’t like questions. If she poses questions to Murphy, he does not answer but when she makes statements like “I don’t know how to do this,” Murphy will give advice or suggestions. Overall, “The Good Doctor” is an extremely good show and I recommend it to everyone.
As it pertains to depicting disability in media, ABC has made great strides in this show. Not only does “The Good Doctor” endeavor to present someone on the autism spectrum accurately, it introduces many viewers to another rare disability in savant syndrome. I believe media perceptions shape society and it is nice to see the media portrayal of autism progressing to mirror society’s understanding of this condition. If one were to look at the 1988 movie “Rain Man,” they would likely see Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Raymond as fitting for that time in which institutionalizing people with autism was more accepted. Now that we have a greater understanding of autism, situations like the ones portrayed in “The Good Doctor” are more commonplace. Since the media is so prevalent today, society takes many of its cues from it. Will media add to the effort to change the social perception of people with disabilities as a whole? Only time will tell.