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The Good Doctor

You’ve probably heard of House. The medical drama starred Hugh Laurie as a brusque but brilliant doctor lacking in social skills. You might also know that the character is nearly a Xerox of that most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. 

House has a brilliant mind, but he lives on the outskirts of society and only has one true friend. Holmes enthusiasts (holmies?) will recognise more specific references: the doctor lives in a flat numbered 221B; gets shot by a villain named Moriarty; and ends his story by faking his death, not to mention the joke in the name (house and home). More importantly, medical procedurals like House are essentially mystery stories and are generally governed by the same principles as cop shows, direct descendants of Holmes’s short stories.

The programme was created by David Shore, who was richly rewarded for his efforts. After a healthy lifespan of six seasons and an abundance of praise, House drew to a close. Shore’s career hit rocky ground immediately afterwards. His comedy Battle Creek was cancelled before the first season had even fully aired and he resigned from the crime drama Sneaky Pete. It’s tempting to say that he rediscovered success by returning to familiar ground, but that wouldn’t be quite right. His current project, an adaptation of the South Korean medical drama The Good Doctor, isn’t a copy of Holmes. It’s the photo negative.

Shore’s eponymous good doctor is Shaun Murphy, played by Freddie Highmore (formerly the renowned child actor of Spiderwick Chronicles and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). The similarities to Holmes are straightforward: he is another brilliant but rude solver of mysteries. Shaun is also like Holmes in that he is autistic (most versions of Holmes are implied to be autistic).



Although the original stories predate our understanding of the disorder, it is widely agreed that Arthur Conan Doyle based Holmes on an autistic man he knew in real life. However, while it’s difficult to make absolute statements about such a widely adapted character, I’m not aware of any Sherlock Holmes story that engages substantially with him as autistic in particular – that is to say, as someone with a personality disorder rather than someone with interesting quirks.

The Good Doctor uses Shaun’s autism as the lens through which the story is told. Not everything about Shaun’s story is to do with his autism but it’s the most common recurring theme. As he begins his work as a resident surgeon, he quickly proves himself skilled but needs to improve his bedside manner. Due to his disorder, he faces regular conflict from his peers and patients. His superior Dr Melendez initially thinks Murphy can only memorise textbooks rather than engage with the needs of each patient. Melendez is being unfair but only to an extent. Shaun puts his foot in it again and again. When a patient comes in with an unusually painful boil on her labia, he quickly blurts out that she might have flesh-eating bacteria. This is typical.

In the Season 3 episode Influence, Shaun treats social media influencer Kayley. She draws media attention to him for saving her life – attention that he’s not comfortable with. Some of Shaun‘s higher-ups push him to accept a media interview to boost the hospital’s reputation. Unsure of how to proceed, he asks his girlfriend Carly for advice. What follows feels like a direct line to the show’s attitude: Carly says that it could be inspiring for other autistic people to see Shaun being a successful surgeon, but it could also be objectifying to put him on a pedestal and treat him like he’s a hero just because he has autism. Ultimately, Shaun turns down the interview; he wants to be known as a good doctor, not a good autistic doctor.

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 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.


Mark Laherty is a freelance media critic living in Tramore, Waterford, Ireland. He has written for the Sundae and the Mary Sue. You can find him at his website or at @LoafersWrites. His favourite Doctor is Clara Oswald.