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Last year, NBC’s compelling family series This Is Us captured America’s hearts and minds with its emotional, mystery-laden plot twists. Fast-forward to 2017, and it looks like the ratings successor to This Is Us has scrubbed in: the surprisingly stirring medical drama The Good Doctor full movie.
Executive-produced by David Shore (House) and adapted from a 2013 Korean drama series of the same title, the ABC show resolves around Freddie Highmore’s Dr. Shaun Murphy, a resident with autism and savant syndrome who got enlisted in the surgical team at the prestigious San Jose St. Bonaventure. While his mentor and the hospital’s president Aaron Glassman (Richard Schiff) recognizes his potential, the same can’t be said for arrogant attending surgeon Dr. Neil Melendez (Nicholas Gonzalez), who worries about Shaun’s ability to communicate and refuses to let him operate.
So, the show becomes an inspiring story about Shaun struggling to win over not only the constraints of his autism but those set by the powers that be. Five weeks into its freshman year, The Good Doctor 2017 full movie is already the most watched drama of the season, dethroning CBS’ perennial juggernaut NCIS, with an average 17.8 million viewers tuning in. It’s also besting its network sibling Grey’s Anatomy in the coveted 18-49 demographic with a 4.1 demo rating (ratings are live-plus-seven). It’s a scale of success Shore and Highmore (who is also a producer) didn’t think of.
“I never expect it, but you tell stories that you know are resonating with you, and then you find out that it’s resonating with a lot of people,” says Shore.
So why are so many people checking into Saint Bonaventure? Sure, The Good Doctor movie brings about your standard medical thrills — like Shaun and his co-worker Dr. Claire Browne (Antonia Thomas) doing surgery on a liver in the midst of a highway — but the series’ star and producers believe audiences are mainly responding to its unabashed yet never maudlin sentimentality.
There’s one shining moment which is Glassman’s emotional defense of Shaun in the pilot: “We hire Shaun, and we bring hope to those who have limitations that those limitations are not what they think they are, that they do have a chance! We hire Shaun, and we make this hospital better for it. We hire Shaun, and we are better people for it.”
“What I love about this show is that it is unapologetically from the heart,” says executive producer Daniel Dae Kim (Hawaii Five-O), who had been trying to develop the series for American television since 2013. “There’s no cynicism in this character. So many protagonists on TV we see nowadays are antiheroes, [but] Shaun is the anti-antihero.”
Highmore’s restrained yet not emotionless performance has also resonated within the autism community. Shore has heard from multiple people who have found the series inspiring, including one mother who told him that her son, who is on the spectrum and has struggled with depression, agreed to resume therapy after watching the first episode. “You hear stories like that and you realize the responsibility you have, and it makes you feel good,” says Shore.
That nuanced handling is the result of many hours of research, including working together with consultant Melissa Reiner, who has worked as a therapeutic companion to children having autism, and who is involved at every stage of the writing process.
“She’s always there for guidance, to make sure we continue to learn and grow in our understanding of Shaun, just as Shaun does too,” says Highmore. Adds Shore, “The whole idea of Shaun not responding well to questions,” which we learned in episode 3, “came from discussions with her.” The writers have also taken great pains to make sure they are not using his disability as a superpower. “There were so many times in scripts where [we have gone], ‘Jesus, you know what? Shaun needs to lose here,’” Shore says. “Within individual cases, it’s not simply Shaun riding in on a white horse and saving the day.”
As the season continues, the shows will continue to explore who Shaun is outside of the hospital and how his one of a kind perspective affects other parts of his life, including dating. Teases Highmore, “We find out [with whom] and why Shaun starts to fall in love.”