Preview: The Good Doctor (US: ABC; UK: Sky Living)

My best friend is autistic

The Good Doctor
Freddie Highmore in ABC (US)'s The Good Doctor

In the US: Mondays, 10/9c, ABC. Starts September 25
In the UK: Acquired by Sky Living to air in Autumn

Back in 2014, I made a confident prediction:

I’m confidently predicting synesthesia as the TV Aspergers for 2015. All the shows will be doing it soon – you’ll see.

I wasn’t 100% on the money, but synesthesia did pop up in a few shows and CBS did try a synesthesia pilot back in 2016.

However, my unspoken assumption was that TV was so over Aspergers. It was done with it. It had been in everything already, so now was the time to find something newer and groovier for TV drama to work with.

Oops. My bad. Here we are, at the start of the 2017-2018 US TV season, and we have ABC(US)’s The Good Doctor, which is centred on an Aspie. Yep, following all the lovely racial and sexual diversity work ABC’s been successfully glopping out onto people’s screens for the past few years, it’s now the turn of us ‘disableds’ for a bit of special treatment. It’s nice but it does feel a bit 2013 all the same.

Freddie Highmore (Bates Motel) is the central Aspie of the piece. He’s just starting out at a prestigious hospital as a surgical resident. So far, so uncontroversial.

However, forget 2013 – it’s almost like the past 10 years haven’t happened for The Good Doctor, because even though Abed’s been making movies on NBC’s Community and Ben Affleck rolling-pinned his way into the special forces in The Accountant, ABC isn’t quite sure if Aspies can hold down a job…

My best friend’s an autie

About half the show’s first episode is dedicate to an emergency meeting of the hospital’s board to debate the fact that its president, Richard Schiff (The West Wing), has hired Highmore. Yep, an emergency meeting. This couldn’t even wait until a regular meeting.

The concern? Surely there’s someone better qualified and might have social skills or something, wonders Schiff’s fellow board member and metaphorical moustache-twirler Hill Harper (CSI: NY)? You can’t be a surgeon if you don’t have social skills and Aspies sure as hell can’t have those, can they?

Dude – if you think the average surgeon has social skills, you really haven’t been on the receiving end of a consultation recently. Or even watched an episode of House, which is odd because David Shore created The Good Doctor, too.

The meeting is, of course, an obvious device to explain to the board and therefore to the audience what autism is, how it affects people who have it and so on. However, despite also supposedly being a crack multi-disciplinary healthcare team, not one of them is even friends enough with a psychiatrist to be able to borrow a DSM from which to quote the triad of impairments, so there’s not even a halfway sensible explanation of autism the entire meeting. Sorry, audience, you’re not going to be any the wiser from this monologuing.

More problematically, Schiff’s defence of Highmore is somewhat akin to white people explaining that black people can be just as smart as them and that ‘not all of them are criminals’ either. “He’s not Rainman, he’s high functioning. He can live and support himself.”

Yikes.

By the end of the episode, Schiff is promising to resign if Highmore makes any mistakes and turns out to be a liability. There’s progressive for you.

Not Rainman? Ah go on

That claim to Highmore not being Rainman would have a lot more weight to it, mind, if the show didn’t then play the eternal trump card of Asperger’s portrayal by making Highmore a savant. He wouldn’t have been useful as a normal Aspie, you see, so he needs to be one of those incredibly rare savant types. He’s probably got synesthesia, too. That’ll make up for all the problems and deficiencies Schiff said he might have.

While we’re not watching Schiff hectoring the even worse informed, we’re watching Highmore’s trip to work. This mostly involves flashbacks, usually to when he was being beaten up as a kid by friends and even his dad, who murdered his rabbit. Lovely.

However, just as he comes into town, a kid is injured so it’s Highmore to the rescue. Soon, he’s telling another doctor how best to administer first aid, while MacGyvering a lung pump using a pipe and a bottle of whisky. Oddly, despite the fact, he’s stealing knifes, being arrested by security and never once shows any form of ID to anyone, even the parents seem happy for him to stick a 5″ blade into their dying kid’s chest. Yes, it’s House but with surgery as we try to guess what bit’s gone wrong and needs repairing, removing or circumventing.

All of this is done with whizzy on-screen graphics showing Highmore’s instant savant reasoning and recall. Not Rainman? My arse.

Highmore himself doesn’t do anything to dispel the Rainman aesthetic. He’s clearly done some research: there’s poor eye contact, some odd walking and the occasional bit of stimming to demonstrate his aspie-ness. But when everyone and their auntie starts hugging him in gratitude, there’s not even a hint of sensory-defensive recoil, for example.

And after a while, Highmore begins to alternate between simply gazing robot-like into the distance and forgetting about eye-contact problems altogether. The odd walking starts to turn into ‘mum-running’  and on top of that, he constantly talks like a Speak-and-Spell – if the guy was genuinely having that much difficulty with sensory filtering, he’d have some very serious problems with surgery.

Then, despite being high-functioning, etc, it all ends with Highmore delivering a speech about his bunny going to heaven and how he wants to help people (and bunnies) to have kids. And everyone looks at him as if to say, “That was so moving an inspiring – for a disabled. You guys are so sweet and simple.”

The other Good Doctors

But what about everything else? Is there more to The Good Doctor than a ‘condition’ and a ‘what’s wrong with him’ of the week? Well, there’s a huge supporting cast of other surgeons for sure, including Nicholas Gonzalez, Antonia Thomas, Claire Browne and Chuku Modu (including Highmore, that’s three Brits, you’ll notice. We’re going to run Hollywood within the next 20 years, I reckon). There are also plenty of board members for Schiff to spar with, including Beau Garrett and Tamlyn Tomita.

However, beyond the fact they shag and argue, they have almost no personalities of their own and so are almost completely inseparable from each other. They’re all “professional”, “ambitious”, “competitive” and “God, aren’t Aspies weird? Are you sure they can hold down a job?” All of them. It makes House‘s reduction of new hires to mere numbers seem like the introduction of a new US-wide hiring process.

America

So you’re not going to learn much about autism from The Good Doctor. But you will learn a lot about America – or at least its attitudes to disability. Or maybe just the programme-makers’.

Having a minuted board meeting where you discuss the firing of an employee because he’s disabled? That’ll get you so incredibly sued under the Disability Discrimination Act in the UK. But not in the US, it seems. That’s just tickety-boo.

Aspergers and autism? Real, pathological problems that make you less capable than anyone else, except if you can prove you have some magic extra skills to justify your existence. Meritocracy? Only if you’re not ‘abnormal’.

Social skills? Highmore, of course, has never had any “speech and language pathologist” (a country’s attitude summed up in a job title) help him with social rules, presumably because the healthcare system doesn’t think that worth paying for. So despite being in his 20s, he doesn’t have even the slightest tact. “You’re very arrogant. Do you think that helps you as a surgeon? Is it worth the cost?” he asks his new boss.

Speechless

The show’s heart is in the right place, but somehow The Good Doctor manages to be deeply offensive at the same time. I mean: ‘The Good Doctor’. What exactly is the show trying to say there? I’m sure it’s trying to say something nice. But just like the rest of the show, something’s gone horribly, horribly wrong in the process.

If you quite fancy yet another attempt to do House again but with surgery and a slightly different gimmick, but you never bothered keeping your old recordings of 3 Lbs, The Good Doctor might be up your street. But if you prefer a smart show about disability that at least feels like it’s been made in the past decade, go off and watch Speechless.