The Good Doctor, ABC's feel-good, inspirational medical drama, is unequivocally the breakout hit of 2017. Before its premiere, it seemed like typical genre fare: photogenic doctors + wise mentor + high-stakes medical situations to keep the adrenaline pumping. But as fans and critics soon found out, the heart of the show, Dr. Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore), a young surgeon with autism and savant syndrome, wasn't interested in drama-filled hookups that rival Grey's Anatomy; he was on a much simpler mission: to make it through each day and do some good while he's at it.
Shaun Murphy's core struggle is so universal that the show premiered to shockingly high numbers: 11.22 million viewers and a 2.2 in the adults 18-to-49 demographic. That made it the network's most-watched Monday drama debut since Dangerous Minds 21 years ago and the highest-rated since Castle eight years ago. It was a stellar bow, and one that truly surprised ABC, but it was nothing network executives could fully celebrate just yet.
"We all waited with bated breath for Week 2 [ratings] because Week 1 is really a function of, did enough people hear about the show? Is awareness high enough?" Victoria Dummer, ABC's head of current series programming, tells TV Guide. "Week 2 is, they're with us, they enjoyed it, they're on the ride. They're there for this journey with this character and this show."
In Week 2, The Good Doctor defied expectations again, pulling in 10.93 million and a 2.2, after which it received a full-season pickup for 18 episodes. The retention is especially impressive when considering that there are more than 400 TV shows airing a year now and more ways to watch than ever, making it even more difficult — especially in broadcast — not just to break out from the pack, but to sustain it. "We were just thrilled," Dummer says. "We're breaking a lot of records for ourselves."
Its third episode, which aired Oct. 9, dethroned The Big Bang Theory as the most-watched show on TV that week, with 18.2 million to Big Bang's 17.9 million.
But, despite the odds that few shows overcome, more than two months later, The Good Doctor is the most-watched drama of the season, eclipsing CBS stalwart NCIS and NBC's This Is Us with an average of 18.08 million viewers, which includes seven-day DVR playback. It's the most-watched 10 o'clock show on television — an hour many use to catch up on other shows or get ready for bed. It routinely adds an average of seven million viewers and a huge 2.0 gain in the all-important demo with a full week of delayed viewing. Its third episode, which aired Oct. 9, dethroned The Big Bang Theory as the most-watched show on TV that week, with 18.2 million to Big Bang's 17.9 million. It's ABC's biggest fall freshman series in 13 years — when Lost and Desperate Housewives delivered a massive one-two punch for the network — and the first major medical hit since ABC's stalwart Grey's Anatomy premiered in spring 2005.
But The Good Doctor's success isn't self-explanatory; the numbers and warm fan reception were forecasted by few, including those behind it.
"It's not like I expected it to die," showrunner and executive producer David Shore says with a laugh. "I was proud of what we had done. It touched me, it touched the people who had seen it beforehand, and so I thought it would touch [a wide audience]. The extent to which that has happened has taken me surprise and it's really gratifying."
Shore's surprise is warranted, especially when one considers the three-year, two-network journey The Good Doctor endured to get on the small screen. Based on a 2013 Korean drama of the same name, The Good Doctor follows Dr. Shaun Murphy at his new job at St. Bonaventure Hospital. The hospital board is wary of his ability to communicate and perform effectively, except for his mentor and hospital director Dr. Aaron Glassman (Richard Schiff), who implores in the pilot, "We should hire him because he is qualified and because he is different. ... We hire Shaun and we make this hospital better for it. We hire Shaun and we are better people for it."
After securing the rights to the award-winning original with his production company 3AD, Hawaii Five-0 star Daniel Dae Kim tried to adapt it for his then-home network CBS and studio CBS Television Studios in 2014. CBS, however, passed on it twice, but Kim refused to throw in the towel.
"Generally what happens is once a show doesn't proceed, whether it's at the script stage or the pilot stage, it pretty much disappears. But I felt passionately about this project, passionately enough ... that I actually bought the rights back myself from CBS and tried to redevelop it," Kim says. "I'm incredibly grateful to CBS for giving me the opportunity to start a production company. I was really hoping that I could bring something back to my home studio and The Good Doctor was the first project that my company developed, so I was disappointed that it wasn't the right fit for them at the time."
Around the same time, Shore, who knows a thing or two about launching a hit medical drama after the success of House, checked out the Korean series after hearing about it for the umpteenth time. "It was one of those things where I ignored it the first time it was sent to me and then I ignored it the second time it was sent to me. And by the time a third person sends it to you, you go, 'You know what? Maybe there's something here,'" he says. "And it moved me. I wanted to do it. Then I found out Daniel was involved and we had a wonderful discussion [where] we saw this [show] the same way and it's been a great collaboration."
Things moved quickly when the pair teamed up with Sony Pictures Television and the project eventually landed at ABC with a put-pilot commitment, meaning the network would've incurred a financial penalty if it didn't make the pilot. Lauren Stein, Sony's EVP of drama development who'd been involved with the show since Day 1, says Sony was enthusiastic from the second the pitch meeting was done. "It's kind of been a labor of love for everybody involved," she says. "[We] really loved the concept of it and the emotion of it. I think everybody went in with really high expectations and [casting] Freddie really kind of solidified literally everything. ... Everybody really had a similar vision going into it. It was again one of those processes where you wish [everything] went as smoothly as this did. We got lucky."
Expectations were even higher after the pilot tested "through the roof," Stein says, with test audiences taking a particular liking to Shaun's underdog journey and Highmore's carefully modulated portrayal. "People really embraced Shaun as a character and the concept because it is such an emotional show," she says. The results made them all "cautiously optimistic" for the premiere. "We felt good, but testing is one thing."
The whole creative team knew that test audiences would mean nothing if the show wasn't well received by the autism community. Shore says everyone was nervous about the impending reaction because "we took on this huge responsibility and incredibly difficult task to be fair and honest in our portrayal of somebody with autism." Shore & Co. knew after copious research — that's still ongoing — the key was to make sure to depict Shaun as just one person with autism and his own unique set of circumstances, and not be representative of everyone on the spectrum. "It's a very tricky role. It's a role that would be easy to not just do mediocrely but to actually actively do badly," Shore acknowledges.
With the understanding that the series needed to connect with a very specific demo before larger numbers could be considered a success, ABC prioritized the show for the fall and poured its resources into marketing over the summer. Massive billboards and buses emblazoned with Highmore's face were as ubiquitous as Starbucks locations; extended previews played in front of every summer blockbuster. "We wanted it to win its time period. When you first look at it, you want it to do better than the show that was there last year [Conviction]," Dummer says. "You want it to build on its lead-in [Dancing with the Stars]. You want a lot of things for it."
Including positive reviews, which were hard to come by. The show currently stands at a 53 on Metacritic and 55 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. (In contrast, its viewer scores are a 7.6 out of 10 and 88 percent, respectively.) "We build promos and those promos have review clips in them and that helps us sell the show. And we were waiting those reviews to come in and we were like, 'Why aren't those reviews coming in? We love this show. This show is fantastic,'" Dummer says. While there was near unanimous praise for Highmore's performance, critics were quick to disparage the show's big-hearted earnestness — a hallmark of K-dramas the series made sure to retain — calling it everything from "overwrought" to "hokey." Even now, as the show's success has left many going, "Huh?", there's still a helping of snark to the coverage.
"I was like, 'I didn't know [sentiment] was bad!'" Shore says. "I believe it has sentiment, but it is not sentimental." Some also likened Shaun to an inverted Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) — another brilliant doctor who has difficulty connecting to people — which Shore finds overly simplistic. "He certainly does ask some of the same questions that House asks, but he comes at it from a very different point of view. [House's] cynicism is closer to my heart but maybe not as healthy."
Kim didn't come across the reviews until after the show's premiere, but it never concerned him that they weren't positive. "To be honest, I never knew they were negative until much later. In fact, I was actually reading Rotten Tomatoes today for the first time about The Good Doctor and we're up to like Episode 9," he reveals. "I didn't read a lot of reviews beforehand. I guess from my experience on television, I find that TV is not so much a critic's medium as is film or even theater. It's really about ratings and what connects culturally with an audience. I knew we had something good."
"It's a very tricky role. It's a role that would be easy to not just do mediocrely but to actually actively do badly."
And viewers rewarded Shore and Kim's faith in The Good Doctor's unabashed emotion. Since the premiere, the response from the autism community has been overwhelmingly positive. Highmore's nuanced performance has played a huge part; the actor has deftly mastered communicating Shaun's feelings without the obvious and common social, vocal or physical cues neurotypical people use. "When we got to the set on the first day and [Highmore] started working, to a certain extent it was almost instantaneous for [executive producer] Seth Gordon and myself. We were like, 'Oh my god, this is going to work,'" Shore says. "People sometimes think that people with autism don't feel things. Well, just because they don't show it, doesn't mean it's not going on."
In October, the series was honored with The Awareness Award from Autism Speaks at the organization's annual Into the Blue gala. "It has been positive and I find that incredibly gratifying and rewarding and inspiring," Shore says, adding that he hopes the show helps eliminate misconceptions about people with autism. "It's yet another form of discrimination, another prejudice that we have. I think even meeting somebody on TV [helps], so I hope we're part of breaking down that barrier a little bit. That is part of the innate optimism on this show."
"We get letters all the time. We get tweets and Facebook posts," Stein says. "People are finally feeling like either they're being represented or their child is or their family member or friend is. It's giving them a voice."
But the autism community isn't the only audience the show show found. It's drawn so many ardent fans without prior personal connection to the material that when it was off the air recently for a CMA special, Dummer says ABC was flooded with messages from confused, upset viewers — "'Where is it?' 'Why can't I find it?' That's a wonderful sign that the show does have legs" — wondering why Luke Bryan was on their screens instead of Dr. Shaun Murphy. It's a rabid devotion that has even taken aback Kim. "I was part of Lost, where the fan reaction was incredibly passionate and I usually associate that with science-fiction, but to have it be a show in the medical genre and widely considered mainstream was something that I didn't expect to this degree," he says. " I love that people love the show and love [Shaun] so much."
In part this can be explained by who Dr. Shaun Murphy is, a throwback to a pure hero, one who is exactly as the title describes: good. More important — and appealing — than his medical skills and intelligence, he's just a decent, kind, warmhearted person trying to save lives and do the right thing. He's what Kim has dubbed the "anti-antihero" — still a complicated, complex character whom Shore has vowed will get things wrong professionally unlike many TV geniuses, but one who doesn't come with reservations.
"I would argue that there's a legitimate place for a character like Shaun, someone who you feel like you can root for with your whole heart and not have to apologize in any way and not have to say, 'Well, he's a great guy, but he's a drug dealer.' 'He's a great guy, but he's a womanizer.' 'He's a great guy, but dot, dot, dot,'" Kim says. "It's nice to say, this is a guy who has circumstances beyond his control and is trying to do the best he can."
Add his innate goodness to the fact that Shaun's underdog status also carries a palpable relatability. He's an outsider and anyone's who's felt underestimated or misunderstood when they have something to offer or because they have certain limitations knows what that feels like. "We all have been unfairly judged and people have underestimated all of us at some point or another in our lives. There is that universal feeling that Shaun represents," Shore says, pointing out why the property drew not only him and Kim, but execs and legions of fans to the project.
Taking its cue from its leading man, The Good Doctor is a refreshing departure from the gritty, broody, cynical fare that's defined this TV era since the turn of the century — a tone perhaps American audiences are too used to. The last decade-plus has birthed many iconic antiheroes, including Shore's own misanthropic House and some on ABC in Scandal's Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and How to Get Away with Murder's Annalise Keating (Viola Davis). Going against the antihero grain, Shore feels, saddled The Good Doctor with a "not cool" label in critics' eyes. "I'm OK with that," he says. "I think certain assumptions are made when you see a broadcast television show and it has this much sentiment, and I don't think it's fair. Dark things happen on the show, but it's not dark or cynical in its nature."
But with real life already dark, bleak and stranger than fiction, perhaps that optimism and sincerity is a perfect, much-needed salve. In that sense, maybe TV and fans wouldn't have been ready for The Good Doctor in 2014, when Breaking Bad was still winning Emmys, and How to Get Away with Murder and The Blacklist entered our lives.
"People want to feel more so than ever. I think just the climate has kind of opened the door for more emotional programming. People want to escape," Stein says. Dummer believes it's a "response to sort of what we're going through as a country and just the noise out there, the anger, the vitriol that's being spewed."
The changing tide doesn't necessarily mean the Age of the Antihero is over — just that it should scooch on over to make room for Comfort TV. "I think there's a place for all of this," Shore says. "I love the antihero as well. I don't think one is by nature better than the other." The Good Doctor, much like This Is Us, proves that "you don't necessarily need spectacle to get people to watch TV," Stein says. And given the success of both shows, that might be the niche that broadcast networks can flourish in instead of trying to go toe-to-toe with the deep-pocketed streaming and cable networks, which have the Dark and Edgy Market cornered.
"I would argue that there's a legitimate place for a character like Shaun, someone who you feel like you can root for with your whole heart and not have to apologize in any way."
"Network television [is] not able to do the same things that cable and streaming can," Kim says. "I think the television landscape is changing for sure. Broadcast networks need to continue to carve out their own identity. No longer are broadcast networks necessarily the de facto choice when people are watching TV at night, so brand identity is very important. If The Good Doctor is part of ABC's new direction and they feel strongly about that, it's an honor in my opinion."
"Everyone thinks they need to push the envelope all the time," he continues. "I don't necessarily think you always have to find something new and dark. I think that if you can find a story and tell it well, there's a lot of value in that."
Dummer cannot speak to ABC's development slate, but says the network wants "to make sure we're continuing the momentum of this show" and to piggyback off its success "in other places as well" for next season. "We are all over the spectrum of types of programming for us. There's plenty of opportunity to have a show with an antihero, but there's also lots of opportunity to find a show with maybe a more comedic tone to it and maybe a more light hour, and then doing something that's a little more intense. We're still looking programmatically that we can vary kind of where we go on that."
Though there hasn't been an official renewal yet, The Good Doctor is a shoo-in for a second season, but no one is thinking about that at the moment. They all just want to finally be able to enjoy this.
"It's been a surprise every week. I'm hoping we maintain it for the season," Shore says of the response. "I acknowledge that sooner or later the tide will turn, but I'm hoping not for a long, long time."
The Good Doctor airs Mondays at 10/9c on ABC.
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