‘The Good Doctor’ needs to break medical drama stereotypes


‘The Good Doctor’ needs to break medical drama stereotypes

By Brooke Pawling Stennett

ABC’s medical drama “The Good Doctor” has become a TV sensation after its first season, which started Sept. 25, following in the footsteps of popular shows like “E.R.,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice.” 

Ryan Murphy, co-creator and writer of the anthology series “American Horror Story” and TV musical show “Glee,” will launch a new drama “9-1-1” next year, rumored to be about police emergency operators. 

There are many medical dramas either already over, airing or anticipated, and it would be hard to name them all and still have space left in this column to comment on anything else.

But it’s Dr. Shaun Murphy’s story as an autistic surgeon in “The Good Doctor” that has broken records and displaced NBC’s fan-favorite “This is Us.” According to an Oct. 27 Vulture article, Nielsen data shows the “The Good Doctor,” averages about 17.4 million viewers and is still bringing in high numbers each week. Freddie Highmore, who plays Murphy, went from one popular show—“Bates Motel”—to another practically overnight. 

It’s important that the show is destroying myths about autistic individuals. Murphy is a man with autism and savant syndrome living his dream and succeeding despite what were once insurmountable odds. Who wouldn’t want to watch his story play out on screen and root for a guy following his passion?

But the problem is “The Good Doctor” is slowly giving in to medical drama stereotypes: interpersonal work relationships and plots about characters taking other people’s credit to get to the top. People may root for Murphy, but they stay for the sex, intrigue and betrayal that medical dramas have always been saturated in. The longer we continue making medical dramas like this, the longer people will be convinced they can watch an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” and know everything that’s wrong with anyone, medically.

The history of medical dramas dates back to 1951, when “City Hospital” premiered, followed by “Ben Casey” and “Dr. Kildare” a decade later. Even “General Hospital,” which first premiered in 1963, is still producing episodes, and they’re as unrealistic as ever. In the 1990s, a slightly less-grayer George Clooney showed up on “E.R.” and made a name for himself as Doug Ross—along with sleeping with women at the hospital, of course.

Thus, shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” which has so much sex, unrealistic plot twists and drama that it might as well just be a soap opera at this point, were born. And “The Good Doctor” needs to be better than that. This isn’t to say that all TV dramas are inherently bad, but medical dramas in particular, which sometimes get medical cases and diagnoses entirely too wrong, are being watched by millions and have a platform that is influencing the public. If “The Good Doctor” gives into that, there’s more of a chance that Murphy’s autism will become fetishized, unrealistic and a drama tactic that will be unwatchable for those who can recognize what is happening. For those who can’t, they’ll consume this behavior as fact, and that’s too dangerous.

People may make jokes about watching an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” and then suddenly knowing everything about medicine, but TV has an impact that is incomprehensible for those who don’t study it for a living.

Why can’t medical dramas be interesting for the sole purpose of having believable storylines and likable characters who don’t give into melodrama and make unrealistic decisions at every turn?