Entertainment

Why Do People Like This Shit?: ABC's The Good Doctor

A Skeptical Investigation into the Most-Watched Show on Television

By Sam Eichner ·
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Photo: ABC

Today, we’re pleased to introduce a new column. It’s called “Why Do People Like This Sh*t” and it’s more or less a large-scale investigation into why so many good people like so many (presumably) bad things.

First up: ABC’s The Good Doctor, which, only a few episodes in, recently surpassed The Big Bang Theory as the most-watched show on television.

Introduction
Last night, I airdropped myself into the fifth episode of ABC’s The Good Doctor, or, as Vulture so aptly labels it, the Freddie Highmore Doctor Show. Freddie Highmore plays a prodigiously young pediatric surgeon named Shaun Murphy with autism and Savant syndrome. Naturally, he’s surrounded by an unbelievably attractive gang of well-meaning but tough-loving doctors, like Dr. Neil Melenedez (Nicholas Gonzalez), Dr. Claire Brown (Antonia Thomas), Dr. Jared Kalu (Chuku Modu) and, last but not least, the gruff yet charming head of medicine, Dr. Aaron Glassman, played with the requisite zeal by Richard Schiff. Together, they solve really difficult medical problems, save people’s lives (or fail to) and learn about themselves in the process. It's a tough watch.

Synopsis
Here is a summary of last night’s episode by way of a list of really heartbreaking things that happened, in somewhat sequential order. (Warning: This will contain spoilers.)

-Son comes home to his father after missing his mother’s funeral.

-Father gets angry at son for missing his mother’s funeral.

-Father spurns son and collapses in the kitchen; son calls 911.

-Freddie Highmore attends to a kid with a broken arm who looks exactly like Freddie Highmore’s dead younger brother. (They are literally played by the same actor.)

-Richard Schiff comes over and comments on how much said kid looks like Freddie Highmore’s younger brother, so the audience knows this isn’t just a sort of vision Highmore is having. This is quite remarkable.

-Highmore gives the kid an MRI (for reasons I don’t understand) and discovers he has a brain tumor behind his ear. Jesus.

-Highmore discovers the kid’s parents already know he has bone cancer, and that the kid only has a few months to live, but that the kid himself is unaware of his condition. Keep in mind this is a really sweet kid we’re talking about.

-We hear the kid, at one point, ask from off-screen whether or not he’d be able to play baseball again. I want to cry my fucking eyes out.

-Highmore debates telling the kid he has cancer. He’s told not to but he does it anyway. Turns out, the kid had already researched his condition and has known all along that he has cancer, but has been playing the role of “happy go-lucky kid” to make his parents feel better. Keep in mind this kid can’t be more than 12 years old. Keep in mind if you’re heart isn’t breaking right now there is something fundamentally aka you may be a sociopath.

-Meanwhile, it becomes clear that the the son had caused his father’s cysts to burst because he hugged him. That is the official medical cause. Keep in mind the father and the son had never gotten along, they really only both communicated to the wife/mother, who’s already died. Keep in mind the father was disappointed the son never wanted to take over his independently owned and operated grocery store, which feels like a more appropriate grievance for a father to have in 1957 than 2017, but okay. Still sad.

-Meanwhile meanwhile, Highmore has Beautiful Mind-ed a solution to the kid’s cancer. 

My boy is Beautiful Mind-ing!!!!

Turns out, the kid doesn’t have cancer. He has something else that can be easily treated. But wait—there’s actually only a 0.3% chance that this is the case, and Highmore’s going to have to administer a bone marrow test to confirm/deny it.

-Highmore attempts to lie to the kid about the reason for the bone marrow test in order to not give him false hope but the kid sees through it because a) the kid is very perceptive; and b) Highmore’s character is autistic and so very bad at lying. As Highmore spills the beans re: the kid’s condition, the kid’s parents come in and RIP THE NEEDLE FROM HIGHMORE’S HANDS.

-The kid begins coughing up blood and is rushed into surgery. He’s having an embolism. While operating on the kid, Dr. Neil Melendez discovers some irrefutable evidence on the kid’s ribs that he does indeed have bone cancer and not this other totally treatable sickness. Melendez informs the parents and destroys any false hope they may’ve had re: their kid’s life. “Oh my god,” I say, stuffing my face with banana bread.

-The kid gets out of surgery and puts on a good face for his parents, telling them that he won’t be alone when he dies, he’ll join grandma and Aunt Arlene and Uncle Jim. This kid handles the prospect of death with more aplomb than I handle season finales of The Bachelorette.

Why People Like This Shit
Watching The Good Doctor is like going to the grocery store, purchasing an off-brand hunk of pre-packaged catharsis and savagely eating it in your car in the parking lot. It’s basically sadness porn, a term I’m using here to describe something that’s so safely and extremely sad as to have the physiologically manipulative and addictive powers of porn. And it makes sense: it takes the archetypical medical procedural (E.R., Chicago Med, Grey’s Anatomy) and throws a young man who has to overcome personal challenges into the mix; Highmore’s emotional struggles, as someone with autism, is a good vehicle to deliver double the redemptive or melancholic feels—i.e. when said young man “saves” himself by saving others, or fails to save someone he cares about, as in last night’s episode—than your standard super hot doctors. (I can't speak to the show's portrayal of autism/Savant syndrome in any credible way. It's my understanding, however, that people have responded well to that aspect, and understandably so.)

On another note, The Good Doctor is one notch away from becoming a satire of itself. Amp up the sentimentality any more and it becomes more like Children’s Hospital than Grey’s Anatomy. Which is the key to a so-bad-it’s-good show (and also why many smart publications have written sardonic pieces about the show). Next weekend, for example, Highmore and Co. have to operate on two dozen people who just got in a bus accident. It looks horrifying and sad and highly ridiculous. I might just have to tune in.

Sam Eichner likes literature, reality television and his twin cats equally. He has consistently been told he needs a shave since he started growing facial hair.

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