Anatomy of a Phenomenon: How ABC’s ‘The Good Doctor’ Became the Year’s Breakout

Star Freddie Highmore originally passed on the David Shore medical drama – ABC’s The Good Doctor 2017 movie.

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In the Peak TV era where more than 500 shows are competing for audiences, delivering a major breakout hit on a broadcast network has become more and more challenging. But it’s not entirely impossible, as Fox’s Empire and NBC’s This Is Us most recently managed to make it through the cluttered landscape. And this season, ABC’s Freddie Highmore starrer The Good Doctor has followed suit.

The Sony Pictures TV Studios-produced drama, adapted from a Korean format and from show-runner David Shore (House), is outpacing the numbers This Is Us achieved last season by 28%. The medical drama’s latest feat is even more impressive: with an average of 17.9 million viewers for its Oct. 16 episode (including 7 days of DVR), it overcomes CBS’ The Big Bang Theory as the most-watched show across all of TV.

“We have done incredibly well with the young female demo,” gushes ABC Entertainment Group president Channing Dungey of her breakout hit. “A lot of that is thanks to the charm of Freddie Highmore, who’s not only an exceptionally talented actor, but a very charming person who appears to have developed an enormously huge fan base of young women.”

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THE GOOD DOCTOR – “Mount Rushmore” – Dr. Shaun Murphy’s attention to detail complicates his first day at St. Bonaventure Hospital. Meanwhile, Dr. Claire Browne learns a valuable lesson about honesty when confronted with a difficult diagnosis for her patient. “The Good Doctor” airs MONDAY, OCTOBER 2 (10:01-11:00 p.m. EDT), on The ABC Television Network. (ABC/Eike Schroter)

Dungey has every reason to be enthusiastic. The Good Doctor 2017 full movie is an enormous coup for ABC, which for the last two seasons finished third overall among the broadcast networks and fourth in the coveted 18-49 demo. It’s also a big deal for Highmore, who finished his acclaimed five-season journey on A&E’s Psycho prequel Bates Motel just in time to score the greatest hit of his career on either the big or small screens — even though it’s worth noting that he came close to not doing it at all.

“He initially passed on the role,” says Sony Pictures TV co-president Jason Clodfelter, who developed the show in his last role as head of drama at the studio. It wasn’t until Sony came back to Highmore — who at that time was “exhausted” from his work on Bates Motel — with a reduced commitment of 18 vs. 22 episodes that he agreed to do it.

“It wasn’t really a sense of having passed on it; [it was] needing more than three days to make the decision to jump from one television show into another one,” Highmore tells The Hollywood Reporter from The Good Doctor 2017‘s Vancouver set. “I finished Bates Motel, and this sort of huge, climactic last scene for Norman [Bates], and three days later I was down in L.A. having read the script and meeting with David Shore.”

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Ironically, Shore and Clodfelter initially hoped to cast a relative unknown in the part. “We thought with that kind of character, you wouldn’t want anybody bringing a persona to the role — that you really needed to just let the audience fall in love with somebody new and somebody fresh,” says Clodfelter. But those casting sessions failed to yield fruit, and in Highmore they discovered a star whose relative high profile was balanced by his chameleon-like qualities as an actor.

“I think he’s a good enough actor and a subtle enough actor, and he’s able to right away make us forget any of his previous roles,” Shore says. “He did that for me, in a way, when I met with him.”

Based on a Korean show of the same title, The Good Doctor movie was originally brought to U.S. shores by Hawaii Five-0 star Daniel Dae Kim, who in 2013 signed a two-year development contract with CBS Television Studios. But when the project failed to gain traction there, Kim got the studio’s permission to shop it somewhere else. It was around that time that Shore caught wind of it.

“I came to it independent of Daniel,” Shore recalls. “I watched [the Korean series] and went, ‘Wow, this is really different and emotional’ … And then I found out that Daniel had the rights to it. And I spoke to Daniel, and it was a wonderful meeting, we got together and we were thinking of it in the exact same ways. I think the show moved us in the same way, and we decided to proceed together.”

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After pitching it around town, Shore and Kim garnered interest from multiple networks before eventually landing the project at ABC, which under Dungey’s leadership has been focused on programming with broad appeal. Highmore stars as Dr. Shaun Murphy, a young surgeon with Savant syndrome who is hired into the pediatric surgical team of a prestigious hospital. The series asks if a person who doesn’t have the ability to relate to people can actually save their lives.

“We had gotten to a point as a network where we were skewing very heavily female in terms of some of the stories we were telling … and feeling like we wanted to have a slightly broader access point that would allow men and women, old and young, into the tent,” says Dungey, who oversaw the development of such series as Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder in her previous post as president at ABC Studios. That directive made a widely targeted series like The Good Doctor full movie a “no-brainer” for the network, she continues. It also dovetailed nicely with Dungey’s honest appraisal of broadcast’s limitations. “We really wanted to lean into what we think broadcast does well,” she continues. “We’re never going to out-stream streaming when it comes to dark and edgy and highly sexualized [content].”

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As anyone involved will tell you, one vital ingredient in The Good Doctor 2017‘s success lies in its “feel-good” credentials. The series aggressively embraces its tear-jerking elements, and that’s striking a chord with viewers who have grown weary of the darker-than-usual news cycle.

Last season, NBC’s mega-successful This Is Ussimilarly hit by offering viewers an abundance of dewy-eyed earnestness in the midst of a chaotic, emotionally fraught election cycle. Both series represent a distinct departure from the breakout broadcast dramas of the preceding several years, when more cynical shows like Fox’s Empire, NBC’s The Blacklist and ABC’s Shonda Rhimes-produced How to Get Away With Murder dominated.

“I think it’s [Shaun’s] hopefulness … and his positivity, his desire to always see the good in people, that makes him attractive,” says Highmore, who hopes to write and/or direct episodes of The Good Doctor full movie in future seasons, as he did during his run on Bates Motel. “People want to root for someone like that in the times in which we’re living.”

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Of course, critical and audience tastes don’t always align, and The Good Doctor full movie is a case in point in that regard. Reviews of the series have been middling at best, with many critics deriding the show as “overwrought,” “mawkish,” “glib” and even “shameless.”

In spite of its supersized ratings, those on the receiving end of the critical lashings lament the show’s reception as a lightweight. “I wish [the critics] would [like it],” says Shore, who earlier enjoyed a mix of both popular and critical success with his hugely successful Fox procedural House.

Whether that resonance (and ratings success) can continue on as massive a scale is an open question, but thus far The Good Doctor 2017 full movie has shown no signs of faltering (ABC gave it a full-season order of 18 episodes last month). Still, hits of this magnitude are so rare that at least one person involved can’t yet bring himself to accept that it’s going to last.

“I just keep waiting for the other shoe to drop,” says Clodfelter with a laugh. “It’s been a little surreal.”

The Good Doctor 2017 airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on ABC.

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Anatomy of a Phenomenon: How ABC’s ‘The Good Doctor’ Became the Year’s Breakout
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