Wednesday, September 20, 2017

TV REVIEW: ABC's 'The Good Doctor'

ABC will premiere its new original drama series The Good Doctor on Monday, September 25 at 10/9c. following a new episode of Dancing With the Stars. The drama stars Freddie Highmore, Antonia Thomas, Nicholas Gonzalez, Chuku Modu, Beau Garrett, Hill Harper, Tamlyn Tomita and Richard Schiff.

Read on for my thoughts on the new drama after screening its premiere episode.

The Good Doctor is a show about Autism with a capital A - at least in its first episode. As will be common across the onslaught of fall premieres on the broadcast networks, only one episode was made available to critics for review. One episode is never enough to fully judge the quality of the series. It doesn't offer a sense about what the show looks like on an ongoing basis. But it's so often the only thing that viewers see in order to form an opinion. The pilot for The Good Doctor is incredibly clunky and complicated. I'm not entirely sure it does a strong job setting up what the actual series is. However, it also has the strength of knowing it wants to be a character-driven medical procedural. It comes from House creator David Shore. Since that FOX show ended, Shore has tried his hand at other procedural formats. But Battle Creek and Houdini & Doyle quickly became one-and-done series while he left Sneaky Pete early on over creative differences. So now, he's returning to the world that produced his most successful series. There is the confidence of knowing how to tell a medical based story in the hourlong format. So, if you were a fan of House, you will probably enjoy The Good Doctor.

In fact, the similarities between House and The Good Doctor are incredibly striking. They both center on people who see the world differently, rub people the wrong way but are brilliant doctors who are solving complex medical cases. On House, Hugh Laurie's lead character was just a selfish and abrasive guy. On The Good Doctor, Freddie Highmore's lead character - Dr. Shaun Murphy - has high-functioning autism as well as savant syndrome. The show comes right out and uses those words immediately in the premiere. It's the basis for the majority of the main plot. A hospital in San Jose needs to decide if they are willing to hire Shaun. A significant amount of time is spent in a boardroom where the debate is being held. Richard Schiff (The West Wing) is Shaun's fiercest advocate who has known him personally for years while Hill Harper (CSI: NY) is the skeptical head of surgery who thinks it's a reckless decision that will lead to the hospital getting sued for malpractice. The debate going on here has a bit of a dated feel to it. It's more than likely the type of conversation that is still happening whenever someone considers hiring someone with autism. It's just presented in a way that doesn't feel current. It's strange and very time-consuming. It's not what the show does best even though it's also clear that the board will have a major presence in the show. Beau Garrett and Tamlyn Tomita are also series regulars and playing members of this board with no immediate indication that they are doctors as well.

While all of this is happening, Shaun is simply traveling to the hospital and gets pulled into a medical emergency. So, the audience gets to see Shaun in action as a doctor while the people in the boardroom are having the abstract debate about his skills and abilities. It's a way to get the audience on Shaun's side immediately. And quite frankly, the show is at its best when it's focusing on Shaun and the medical procedural aspects of the narrative. Coming off of Bates Motel, this is a strong showcase for Highmore as well. Sure, some could probably say that he is just playing one aspect of the deeply troubled killer he played on the A&E show. But it's still a commanding lead performance that gives some heft and legitimacy to this new show. This drama simply wouldn't work if the lead actor wasn't engaging to watch. Highmore carries himself well. The story reveals how he can excel in this world. There's a visual trick in this premiere that shows the way his brain works. On one hand, it seems like something that will only occur in the premiere to give the show some visual style. On the other hand, it could be a nice recurring feature that helps the audience understand and sympathize with the lead character.

But at the end of the day, The Good Doctor really just needs to be a well-executed medical procedural. I am still a sucker for this particular genre. I'm still watching Grey's Anatomy as it heads into its fourteenth season. I've seen every episode of Code Black and Chicago Med even though they are only okay procedurals in their best moments. House was oftentimes a great medical procedural. The creative team reassembling here could allow The Good Doctor to join in as a highpoint in the genre. It's very deliberate and engaging with its medical story in the premiere. It's a simple case that has enough twists to make it compelling for an entire hour. It's unclear if future episodes will just feature one medical storyline that involves Shaun somehow or if it will be more ensemble-driven with multiple cases. The balance is interesting in the premiere. It's simple enough for the audience to understand what's going on. It'll perhaps be a little too tedious for fans of the medical genre who've seen stories like this before. But it's also different enough to show how Shaun can see things that others in the medical profession cannot. That ruffles some feathers as well which could create interesting content.

But again, it's still unclear what the specific series is here. This premiere sets a fine template for a character-driven vehicle for Highmore where he faces opposition from his colleagues while solving medical mysteries. It's a formula that worked on House for many years. But the ongoing series would improve if it focused more on the medical aspects. The creative team has said that they needed to front-load all of the talk about autism in this first episode in order to get all of that exposition out of the way. It's just delivered in a dry and boring way that doesn't really reveal any standouts in the supporting cast. Yes, Schiff and Harper always bring gravitas and believability to every project they are in. But they are still one-note archetypes here. Meanwhile, Nicholas Gonzalez plays an attending surgeon who is probably too similar to the Hill Harper character. And then, there are a couple of romantic pairings that just seem to occur to give those characters something to do. Antonia Thomas has the possibility of really stepping up as an intriguing female lead opposite Highmore. But in the premiere, she's largely asked to be plucky and that's it. But again, all of the foundational elements are here to make something out of this premise. It's just going to need some time in order to do so.