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.
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.
People are looking for an escape from their cares. But where? Not social media, where too much of what passes for conversation is little more than unthinking vituperation. 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.