Just three weeks after its September debut, The Good Doctor – a drama about a gifted young surgeon with autism and savant syndrome – became the most-watched show on American network television.
Its 17 to 18 million viewers each episode set new records for prime-time TV, making it one of the biggest breakout hits of the year.
But although Dr Shaun Murphy, played by British actor Freddie Highmore, is a brilliant physician who solves difficult cases every week, it is not the medicine that makes the show so watchable.
So say executive producers David Shore and Daniel Dae Kim, who sat down with The Straits Times in Los Angeles to talk about the series. It debuts in Singapore on Fox Life (Singtel TV Channel 301 and StarHub TV Channel 501) on Friday at 10pm.
Shore knows a thing or two about medical dramas. The 58-year-old Canadian writer-producer created the multi-award-winning House (2004 to 2012), also a ratings smash.
What lessons from that did he apply here?
“That it’s all about the characters. The medicine, in a weird way, doesn’t really matter. You need to have good consultants and make sure doctors don’t watch it and go ‘That’s bullsh**.’
“But it’s all about finding what is the emotional throughline of the story, then really embracing that and doing everything you can with it, making sure even your supporting characters are three-dimensional.”
The heart of the story is Dr Murphy – ostracised since childhood because of his autism, and now struggling to fit in at his new hospital job, where his lack of social awareness causes friction with colleagues and patients.
But he is still relatable because “everybody’s dealing with challenges, everybody’s slightly misguided and we can learn from everybody”, Shore says.
“That’s what I find interesting: why people make the decisions they make, especially in a situation where they or a loved one is facing life-or-death decisions.”
The idea for the show came from Kim, the Korean-American actor best known for his 2010 to 2017 role on the police series Hawaii Five-O.
An executive at his film and television production company, 3AD, spotted a 2013 South Korean series called Good Doctor at a marketplace for shows from that country.
“She brought it to my attention and I watched it and loved it. So it became the first project our company tried to get the rights to.”
What Kim loved most about the story was that its protagonist was not an antihero.
“So many of our TV heroes today make bad choices, but we’re still supposed to root for them. Shaun is not like that.
“He was born with a specific set of challenges and they’re not of his choosing, so it allowed me, as a viewer, to say: ‘I want you to succeed, I want you to fit in, I want you to be a part of this hospital and this society.’ And I like rooting for someone like that wholeheartedly.”
His pitch for an American version of the series was, however, turned down by CBS.
This is the same network that was criticised for its lack of on-screen diversity and for not paying him and another Asian-American performer the same salaries as their white co-stars on Hawaii Five-O, prompting their exit from the show earlier this year.
But The Good Doctor was snapped up by rival network ABC, which has enjoyed a better reputation for diversity – something Kim was “absolutely conscious of” when casting the new show, which has white, Asian, black and Latino actors.
Unlike the mostly white casts of medical dramas of the 1970s and 1980s, the show reflects the large non-white population of San Jose, California, where it is set “and that was something we fought for”.
With this and other projects he is developing at his production house, Kim is “trying to tell stories from the perspective of the underrepresented”.
Here, it is a person who lies on the autism spectrum – a condition the show researched extensively.
Shore says: “We met consultants, watched a lot of documentaries and there are two assistants in the writers’ room who are on the spectrum. So it was very interesting hearing their insights and about their experiences and challenges.”
Highmore, 25, who plays Dr Murphy, learnt everything he could about autism and savant syndrome too.
“I think it’s an incredibly important story and one that I’m proud to be a part of telling,” says the Bates Motel (2013 to 2017) star in a separate interview.
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