How The Good Doctor became the year’s most popular new television show
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Millions of people have watched the new drama starring Freddie Highmore as a surgeon with autism and a savant condition, but others are dubious.
People have been yearning for the next great medical procedural since Grey’s Anatomy went haywire and hits like House, Nurse Jackie, and ER concluded tough season-long runs. With ABC’s new drama, The Good Doctor, produced by House’s David Shore and based on a Korean series of the same name, they appear to have gotten their wish this autumn. Is the Good Doctor truly “amazing”? It doesn’t quite fill the hole in a genre that has always been less about medicine and more about the often cosmic, always dramatic happenings at our favorite fictional hospitals.
The Good Doctor surpassed The Big Bang Theory, which had held the record for quite some time while running on pseudo-comic fumes, as the most-watched show on American television after only three episodes last week. Yes, “most-watched” is a superlative that has been widely appropriated and, in the age of multi-platform viewing, has become increasingly irrelevant – but the amount of time that The Good Doctor raked in last week, is nothing to scoff at, especially given that it outperformed more flashy fall debuts like The Orville, The Gifted, and Seal Team, and is neck-and-neck with CBS’s Big Bang Theory spinoff Young Sheldon.
It also earned a full-season order from ABC after only two episodes, and it has a small but devoted following on Facebook (the show’s official page now has over 650,000 likes), where viewers applaud the show’s portrayal of autism and attest to the soapy medical plotlines bringing them to tears. There’s even speculation about Freddie Highmore, of Bates Motel fame, receiving an Emmy nomination.
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The idea is straightforward: Shaun Murphy, played by Freddie Highmore, is a genius surgeon who is also autistic. His stream of consciousness speaks anatomical language, and when the program wants to emphasize his brilliance, organs, veins, and glands hover above his head like images taken from a medical textbook. In an attempt to persuade the board that Murphy is hirable and high-functioning, his major supporter at the famous St. Bonaventure hospital argues, “He’s not Rain Man.” The show has done exactly that for individuals in the autistic community.
On the website Autism Speaks, Kerry Magro wrote, “The Good Doctor does a fine job of navigating this razor’s edge,” noting that it shows “several characteristics that can accompany an autism diagnosis, such as social awkwardness, lack of eye contact, and playing with his hands during stressful situations.” “Freddie’s perspective will connect with many in the community,” he says.
In terms of entertainment value, The Good Doctor follows the same pattern as most medical dramas: each day brings a new patient in need of life-threatening surgery; the doctors compete for status and opportunity while romancing one another; we learn that Shaun’s childhood was marred by the gruesome deaths of both his little brother and pet bunny, and he’s disciplined for misbehaving or misbehaving badly.
It’s schmaltzy and emotional, and it’s certainly no accident that the network has pushed a new drama to the center of its schedule as hitmaker Shonda Rhimes (of Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, and How to Get Away with Murder fame) prepares to leave ABC for Netflix. The Good Doctor, like Grey’s Anatomy, has amassed a significant fan base in only a few episodes by integrating the day-to-day activities of surgeons into the wider framework of its protagonist’s tale.
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Grey’s Anatomy averaged 18.5 million viewers per episode in its first season, and The Good Doctor has so far outperformed both that program and others in the same lineage, such as House and Private Practice, with more than half of its audience viewing the show live and the remainder watching it on DVR.
But it had been a while since a premiere series on CBS, ABC, NBC, or Fox became a ratings juggernaut before The Good Doctor and last year’s network blockbuster This is Us, a non-linear tearjerker about a family with three children who share a birthday.
Viewers went to cable (HBO, AMC, FX) or streaming services instead of network television because it was usually unimpressive or, like The Big Bang Theory, boring and formulaic (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu).
In that way, network dramas have become the new underdogs, at least in comparison to the likes of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. But they might not be for much longer, given that both The Good Doctor and This is Us provide the kind of guilty pleasures that many people crave from their television viewing: a heartfelt narrative, extremely handsome performers doing very noble things, and characters that tug at our emotions.
Both shows, like La La Land, Hidden Figures, and Wonder Woman, feature diverse casts and positive outlooks. They premiered when the nation’s mood screamed for upbeat, against-the-odds entertainment in the spirit of La La Land, Hidden Figures, and Wonder Woman. The Good Wife, Empire, Madam Secretary, How to Get Away with Murder, Chicago Med, and The Good Wife—famous network dramas from the pre-Trump period—were less upbeat in spirit and tone. “There’s an honest, unashamed emotionality to this show that I think is extremely refreshing,” David Shore told Indiewire. It will make you weep in an unafraid manner. ” Fans seem to agree thus far. One YouTube commentator said, “I find myself sobbing every episode.” Another writes, “I was growing tired of so many medical dramas, but this one captured my heart.” The Good Doctor, like This Is Us, has embraced its emotional relevance in its commercial campaign: “We’re not crying.” The caption in the episode three trailer reads, “You’re crying.”
As one might imagine, what made The Good Doctor a smash hit also made it polarizing among critics: despite its high scores, Rotten Tomatoes gives it just a 43 percent approval rating. Variety’s Maureen Ryan termed it “preposterously sad” and “a third-rate Grey’s Anatomy knockoff.” The gap between the show’s critical reception and its popularity among viewers is one of the widest in the website’s history, and, like last year’s blockbuster film Batman v Superman, which spawned a flurry of think-pieces about the disconnect between critics and audiences, reviewers like the show about half as much as the 18 million who watch it.
In the end, criticism may be irrelevant to The Good Doctor, which has become ABC’s most-watched Monday drama in 21 years. The Good Doctor will join This is Us as that rare network hit in the age of streaming supremacy, having dethroned The Big Bang Theory. If it continues to handle autism as deftly as viewers think it does, The Good Doctor will join The Big Bang Theory as that rare network hit in the age of streaming supremacy.
The Good Doctor airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on ABC in the United States, and Fridays at 9 p.m. on Sky Living in the United Kingdom.
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