A Scene from the T.V. Series The Good Doctor (Source: verified twitter handle of The Good Doctor)

'The Good Doctor' Is Sweet, and That's Good Enough

(Bloomberg View) -- I decided to tune in “The Good Doctor” to see what all the fuss is about. By fuss, I mean a combination of critical disdain and mass appeal: The new ABC drama was reported to be outdrawing even such network stalwarts as “The Big Bang Theory,”  and reviewers were left bewildered. At Rotten Tomatoes, the show about an autistic surgical resident with savant syndrome was sitting on an unhappy 44 percent rating Thursday afternoon.

Yet more people are tuning in to follow the adventures of Dr. Shaun Murphy at the gleaming St. Bonaventure Hospital in Silicon Valley than are watching Rick Grimes and his depleted band of survivors of the “Walking Dead” zombie apocalypse. Maybe it’s a blip; maybe it’s the start of something new. Either way, critics are trying to figure out the show’s attraction.

Here’s my simple answer: “The Good Doctor” is sweet.

I can’t think of another word.  I don’t mean the show is sweet in the sense of being saccharine or treacly; I mean sweet in the sense of being gentle and innocent. There’s nothing cynical or knowing about “The Good Doctor.” It doesn’t pretend to be anything but nice.

That’s refreshing.

People are looking for an escape from their cares. With He Who Shall Not Be Named fulminating from the White House, and the campus left regularly announcing new categories of people we’re all supposed to despise, it’s natural to seek an island of calm. But where? Not social media, where too much of what passes for conversation is little more than unthinking vituperation. Regular readers know that I love film, but the movies are grimmer than ever: Serial killers are on the loose, the planet is being threatened with destruction, people are being blown to bits on the battlefield. Once upon a time, sports provided a reliable feast for those who sought escape. Nowadays, alas, it’s hard to gorge on the games without imbibing a steady dose of politics.

People are tired, and looking for something cheery. That’s what “The Good Doctor” gives them. The show was created  by David Shore, who brought us the long-running Fox medical drama “House” Like Shore’s earlier program, “The Good Doctor” features a misunderstood medical genius who could save lives if only the hospital bureaucracy would let him. The difference was that Dr. Gregory House was a pill-popping misanthrope. Dr. Shaun Murphy ... isn’t. He’s a naif who just wants to do good.

Murphy isn’t right all the time. He’s young and makes mistakes. But his idealism has an allure, and if the arguments over whether to allow him to perform surgery or deal with patients are a little stilted and obvious, Murphy himself never quite is. His inability to lie, for instance, would have led Dr. House to fire him immediately. To the viewer, however, Murphy’s emotional world is fascinating.

Obviously, I can’t speak to the accuracy of the show’s portrayal of autism.  Nor can I say anything about the accuracy of the medicine.  I will confess that I was a bit puzzled by an early episode, where Murphy and another resident performed emergency surgery to remove a clot from a liver that was already packaged and on its way to a transplant recipient. They undertook the procedure outdoors, atop the trunk of a police car, using, among other tools, a drinking straw. I have no idea whether what we saw on the screen would be practicable, but it did lead to a neat philosophical point at the end of the episode.

Yes, it’s a little weird watching the actor who played a young Norman Bates wander a hospital saving lives.  Yes, the animations that are meant to show the workings of Murphy’s mind can be distracting. Yes, the showrunners could safely dispense with the constant flashbacks -- I think we get Murphy now -- and use the freed-up time to develop the other characters, who at this point are paper-thin.  (In Shore’s masterful “House,” by the end of the pilot we knew three of the characters really, really well -- and there was still time for the doctors to solve the medical mystery.)

But these are quibbles. Nobody is confusing “The Good Doctor” with “The Sopranos.” People like the new show because it provides an escape from madness swirling around so much of life. “The Good Doctor” isn’t likely to wind up in the television hall of fame, but it’s sweet -- relentlessly, hopelessly, maddeningly sweet. And right now, sweet is what we need.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”

  1. Okay, so despite the headlines, it’s technically not

  2. So, no, I do not agree that the show fits into the category of sadness porn

  3. Technically, “developed by” it’s based on a program from South Korea.

  4. See House’s repeated dismissals of Martha M. Masters

  5. The show’s portrayal of autism has been the subject of some debate. Maybe the portrayal is both accurate and positive maybe it’s plausible but oversimplified maybe it’s too manipulative

  6. I do wish that the website Polite Dissent, where a physician named Scott Morrison made his name posting excellent and nearly instant reviews of the portrayal of medicine in popular culture, had not gone dark I suppose we will have to wait for other reviewers to catch up.

  7. It’s equally jarring to see Beau Garrett, who portrayed a vicious sociopath on “House” as the hospital’s in-house attorney and vice president of risk management

  8. There are power rivalries something to do with who will get to head the hospital but until the showrunners develop the other characters, the viewers will never be invested in the outcome.

  9. Also, St. Bonaventure Hospital is a lot shinier than the much-too-shiny Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital of “House,” and still looks too much like a television hospital.

To contact the author of this story: Stephen L. Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net.

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