Skepticism and fear was my first response to learning about the release of ABC’s new medical drama The Good Doctor. The premise: a young doctor with autism and savant syndrome overcoming all of his shortcomings to solve medical mysteries. I was afraid of yet another failed attempt at the portrayal of autism in the media, one that was shallow, silly and stereotypical. But having seen Freddie Highmore’s great, multi-dimensional portrayal of Norman Bates in A&E’s Bates Motel and the thoughtful way in which he played mental illness, I was slightly reassured and decided to give this show a go.
Based on a 2013 Korean drama, The Good Doctor tells the story of a young surgical resident on the autistic spectrum called Dr. Shaun Murphy. Dr. Murphy is to be accepted into a residency at the St. Bonaventure Hospital in San Jose, but the outcome depends on the decision of the board of directors which, throughout the pilot, debate whether or not somebody with autism can be a surgeon.
While nothing can be said of Freddie Highmore’s talented performance as Dr. Shaun Murphy, the general portrayal of ASD (autistic spectrum disorder) in the show is symptomatic of a general trend in the entertainment industry. That is using people with autism for show more than representation. There are of course, a number of high-functioning people with ASD and savant syndrome, but if the entertainment industry really wanted to make a progressive move towards a realistic portrayal of the autistic spectrum in its entirety and complexity, something more needs to be done. The Good Doctor still relies on a number of trendy tropes, such as the fact that Dr. Murphy never makes a medical error, and always finds the improbable solution that will inevitably lead to a miracle. Of course, being a show with a team that includes people who previously worked on the medically grandiose House, it can be expected. Would viewers still tune in to a show that only displayed successful appendectomies and badly treated flu? No, but it is easy to equate a ‘good’ portrayal of somebody on the spectrum with a ‘flawless genius’. But good portrayal means realistic, and we are still in the glamorisation of something that does cause issues to people in real life. There are moments in the show where it feels like it is playing both its neurotypical and autistic viewers. It plays viewers who lack knowledge of autism by being overly sentimental and using Dr. Murphy as a cute mistreated puppy that requires our unconditional empathy, even when he crosses the lines, in order to drive up viewing figures. It also plays viewers on the spectrum by sticking to one, very specific form of autism that is the only one portrayed, and by having them represented by a magical being whose autistic traits are merely quirks, and almost always helpful and fantastical. This could be seen as one dimensional and setting a certain standard of behaviour that might be frustratingly difficult for some to achieve.
In The Good Doctor’s defence, ABC has made some significant progress, and Dr. Murphy’s characterisation is much better than in a lot of recent works. In one episode, a young man with ASD is admitted into the hospital. There, we can see that two people with ASD are not the exact same, and that it does not lead to straight on mutual understanding. The young man is not as high-functioning as Freddie Highmore’s character, and his actions and relationship with his parents are much closer to what a large number of families who deal with ASD would be familiar with. It is, in my memory, one of the rare times in television or cinema that autism is shown to be a spectrum, and not just a one-size-fits-all textbook definition. To make it better, the actor playing this patient himself is on the spectrum, and it is great to see people with disabilities having the opportunity to represent themselves on television. ABC could continue the good work by repeating this and involving more people into their show with similar experiences. Something else surprising but encouraging happened in this same episode. While the boy was panicking and ‘acting out’ as some of the security would put it, Dr. Murphy explained to them that he was ‘stimming’. Stimming is self-stimulatory behaviour that is frequent in people with ASD, which can help them cope and calm down in stressful situation. This type of behaviour is typically either not portrayed, or showed as ‘crazy people doing crazy things’ and used as a bad joke. Shaun Murphy himself is shown stimming regularly on the show, and seeing this other part of the ASD experience is a good step forward, as it shows difficulties and their result, without making it seem evil and ‘comically weird’.
With the first season finishing in the next few weeks, it will be interesting to see if ABC decides to flesh out Dr. Murphy’s character and turn The Good Doctor into one of the first (and hopefully not last) proper fictional depiction of autism. If ABC can rebalance itself and strike a good compromise between showing a truthful, educational and entertaining television series, then The Good Doctor will receive the success and accolades it could deserve in following seasons.