Brilliant doctor, bad bedside manners. If you think you’ve seen that TV show already, think again. I’ve got a great recommendation for you.
Thirteen years ago, producer David Shore introduced TV viewers to one of recent television’s most memorable characters, Dr. Gregory House, a medical genius with, to put it mildly, poor bedside manners.
Last month, in “The Good Doctor,” Shore introduced viewers to yet another doctor with almost other-worldly powers and questionable beside manners. Yet the characters could not be more different.
Gregory House was described as, among other things, a “misanthrope,” “cynic,” “narcissist,” and “curmudgeon,” to which I would add “nihilist” and “drug addict.” Shore’s new creation, Dr. Shaun Murphy, the “good doctor” of the show’s title, is none of these things. His questionable bedside manner stems from the fact that he is autistic. To be specific, he’s an autistic “savant.”
For those unfamiliar with the term, “savant” refers to people who demonstrate “one or more profound and prodigious capacities or abilities far in excess of what would be considered normal, while also having significant deficits in other areas of brain processing.”
Murphy’s “prodigious” abilities include near-perfect recall and the ability to make connections that other people cannot. This makes him, like Gregory House, an extraordinary diagnostician. His deficits lie in the areas of interpersonal communication. He does not make eye contact, and is largely oblivious to the non-verbal cues that most of us take for granted.
If this were all there were to the character, who is brilliantly portrayed by Freddie Highmore, “The Good Doctor” would be an uplifting “fish-out-of-water” story, which, given most of what’s on TV, would be a welcome change of pace.
But it’s more than that. In many ways, Shaun Murphy is a kind of “holy fool.” In Russian Orthodoxy, “Holy fools pose the question: Are we keeping heaven at a distance by clinging to the good regard of others, prudence, and what those around us regard as ‘sanity’?”
A classic example of the holy fool is Dostoyevsky’s novel, “The Idiot.” In it, a kind, guileless, and compassionate Prince Myshkin is taken by his cynical, egotistical, and worldly acquaintances to be, well, an idiot. But he’s nothing of the sort. He is, as Dostoevsky puts it, the embodiment of “the positively good and beautiful man.”
As in Dostoyevsky’s novel, the presence of Murphy’s holy fool causes some people to do some long-overdue self-examination.
As we learn in flashbacks, Murphy cannot lie, even if lying means the difference between eating and going hungry. He may say inappropriate things, but his sincerity and honesty are never in doubt.
In contrast, his colleagues have no problems with dishonesty. They take credit for his accomplishments or fail to report those who do because it will further their careers.
While Murphy has no discernible ego, they are driven by little else. When one character, who had initially dismissed him as weird and threw him out of the hospital, acts friendly towards him after seeing his skills in practice, he points out the differences and asks her “Which is the real you?”
It turns out that the “good” in the show’s title refers to much more than Murphy’s medical abilities. The most important differences between him and his colleagues have nothing to do with his autism.
And that makes “The Good Doctor,” which is pulling in “terrific numbers,” despite some negative critics’ reviews, well worth checking out.
Editor’s note: As with any present-day network TV show, some situations depicted in “The Good Doctor” do not comport with Biblical values. Parental discretion is therefore advised.
“The Good Doctor”: Good Television for a Change
Media portrayals of those on the autism spectrum are rare. But as Eric has described, “The Good Doctor” is one television series that shows real promise.