The show is certainly true to its word; it doesn't place Shaun on a pedestal. He has a long series of screw-ups and while he never feels irredeemable, there are points where he toes the line. He makes egregious errors of judgement like telling a mother that her newborn's birth defects may have been caused by her antidepressants. When he leads a surgery for the first time, he loses his temper at a nurse for not handing him a clamp at a 45-degree angle; the chief of surgery chews him out over this and tells him that he will be fired if anything like it happens again. There's even a pair of episodes where Shaun unlearns his prejudices against Muslims and trans people. This guy isn't being put on a pedestal.
This is good representation. That's not to say that it's everything to everyone; one could reasonably argue that it feels like Shaun spawned into the world in the first episode, somehow completely innocent to the workings of non-autistic society. But, this is tolerable given the context. It's become a cliché but it really must be borne in mind that the best-known autistic TV character is Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, a show that is almost universally despised by autistic people. Other shows have done better than Sheldon, but they're thin on the ground and The Good Doctor is better than most efforts.
It is, for example, leagues ahead of Sherlock. The BBC's 21st-century spin on Holmes has been subjected to a lot of poorly-articulated attacks over the years, but that doesn't change the fact that it uses a lot of tone-deaf stereotypes. It's not just that Benedict Cumberbatch's version equates autism with a malicious disinterest in the well-being of others, although that certainly rustles one's jimmies. No, the kicker is that the show is helplessly captivated by its anti-hero. There are, to be fair, a couple of episodes that commit to Sherlock being in the wrong and getting an appropriate comeuppance, but the vast majority of the show revels in him being funny and cool. The Good Doctor has no time for this. It doesn't shy away from playing Shaun's obliviousness for laughs but never frames him as a 'badass' for his neurotypicality. It only presents him as heroic when he does his job: saving lives.
His Watson figure is Dr Aaron Glassman, president of the hospital and Shaun's adoptive father figure and mentor, played by Richard Schiff (The West Wing). This is a far cry from the typical Watson, who is often played as a passive audience avatar. In The Good Doctor, when Shaun needs advice Glassman is often his first port of call. When Shaun needs some sense shaken into him, Glassman is the best man for the job.
But, of course, The Good Doctor is a story about Shaun learning to navigate the world on his own without someone looking over his shoulder. In a pleasing subversion of expectations, it's Shaun who tells Glassman to back off and stop overstepping. One of the most pervasive stereotypes about autistic people is that they're necessarily childish and need to be coddled and looked after. Certainly, different accommodations need to be made for different people, but Glassman consistently tried to solve every problem in Shaun's life. That isn't helpful; it's just condescending. This is one facet of what makes the show a success. It's not a long sequence of Shaun making mistakes and learning bedside manner, nor is it a series of parables about the people around Shaun being called out on their prejudices. It shows that both exist and that they don't manifest in obvious ways with easy answers.
I don't mean to single out Sherlock as a unique failure. After all, Robert Downey Jr's Holmes is similarly called out for his nastiness. Elementary does better when it holds Jonny Lee Miller's version of the detective accountable for his errors even if he isn't explicitly autistic. But the river seems to have dried up for Holmes adaptations. After a prolific decade, there's little on the horizon. Following its critically-panned fourth season, Sherlock's future is on the rocks. Elementary's ratings declined until it died a quiet death with a reduced final season. Even next year's Downey film, a full ten years removed from the previous instalment, will surely feel more like a throwback than the first shout of a new era.
But, of course, it would be silly to pretend that Holmes will never again be adapted for the screen. House was the blueprint for the 2010s wave of anti-heroic Sherlocks. Maybe Dr Shaun Murphy, an autistic softboi who makes mistakes but does his best, can help us chart a new course.
This article appeared in issue 4 of Imperica Magazine.