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The Good Doctor, the fall TV season’s biggest hit, explained

Its success suggests antihero TV’s time has come and gone.

The Good Doctor
Freddie Highmore stars as Dr. Shaun Murphy in The Good Doctor.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Somewhat out of nowhere, the runaway sensation of the 2017 fall TV season is The Good Doctor, an ABC medical drama that has become the most-watched show on television, completely surprising just about everybody (up to and including people who work at ABC).

Granted, most TV observers expected the show to pull solid numbers, but for a variety of reasons, nobody expected it to top CBS’s The Big Bang Theory — once viewers on DVR and streaming services like Hulu are taken into account — or to come within a few tenths of a ratings point of topping Big Bang among younger viewers. For starters, it airs in the 10 pm Eastern hour, which is less watched in general. And it has little lead-in support, with the aging Dancing with the Stars airing right before it. What’s more, ABC has struggled in recent years to launch new shows, over-relying on older series like Grey’s Anatomy and Modern Family.

Compare this context to that of last year’s breakout hit, This Is Us, which aired an hour earlier at 9 (the most-watched hour in primetime) and right after The Voice, then a still-potent reality show. What’s more, This Is Us aired on TV’s number one network, NBC, rather than its number four network.

And it’s not as if The Good Doctor, a well-made show with solid performances, is wildly different from everything else on TV. It’s simply a well-executed medical show, and TV certainly has seen its share of medical dramas launch in the past several years, most of which attracted little to no viewership. Sure, the series boasts the terrific young actor Freddie Highmore, as a young doctor on the autism spectrum, but it is, in almost every other way, a standard-issue medical show.

So why this show? How did it launch as an instant hit? Why now? Here are three different theories for the success of The Good Doctor.

1) Characters who perceive the world differently are at the center of many of the biggest hits of the past decade

The Good Doctor
When I asked my mom why she thought the show was a hit, she said, “Because the guy is cute, and all of us old ladies like to think he could be our son.” Thanks, mom.

The fact that The Good Doctor topped The Big Bang Theory (which debuted in 2007) offers one possible clue to its success: Some of the biggest hits of the past decade have been shows that dig into the relationship between the neurotypical and those who are portrayed as if they’re on the spectrum. That number includes Big Bang (and its spinoff, Young Sheldon, the season’s other big, new hit), but also everything from Sherlock to The Middle.

And if you expand the above categorization to include “any character who perceives the world significantly differently from those around them,” then you might also pull in series about characters who struggle with mental illness, like Homeland and You’re the Worst (though, granted, both of these are much more niche hits).

The more we understand about how the human brain works, the more the relationship between the neurotypical and those who perceive things differently becomes of interest to TV viewers, both casual and fervent. What’s more, this sort of relationship is exactly the sort of thing that tends to work on TV — where it can be examined and teased out over time — but is harder to portray on film, which has only a couple of hours in which to tell its story.

Highmore’s performance as Shaun Murphy has attracted some criticism, especially from autism advocates. And there are certainly times when it seems as if it’s one or two degrees removed from Dustin Hoffman’s over-the-top work in the 1988 movie Rain Man (still perhaps the most famous portrayal of autism onscreen).

But to some degree, The Good Doctor has a built-in defense against these criticisms, in that it is very, very slowly unveiling both Murphy’s autism and how it affects his view of the world and other people in his orbit. And in some ways, Murphy’s more rigid way of understanding the world drives much of what makes The Good Doctor stand out, about which more in a bit. First, though…

2) It’s been a while since we’ve had a medical drama hit at this level

The Good Doctor
Something about doctors wearing their masks makes America’s TV watchers happy.

It’s tempting to say The Good Doctor just got lucky. It landed on the network that launched the last medical drama sensation, the still-running Grey’s Anatomy, and it did so at a time when Grey’s has been on the air for ages. (It just started its 14th season.) This means that the cycle has come back around for another major medical hit.

Indeed, unlike the cop show, the doctor show rarely sees more than a couple major hits run at the same time. ER overlapped with both House and Grey’s, but it was getting long-in-the-tooth when it did, and its success always overshadowed the milder success of its contemporary Chicago Hope. Even though a hospital is a great setting for a TV series — because life-or-death stakes literally walk through the door on a daily basis — the appetite for medical dramas seems to be somewhat finite.

But try though other networks might, with shows like NBC’s Chicago Med and CBS’s Code Black, they haven’t been able to supplant Grey’s Anatomy in the ratings. And when ABC decided to reenter the medical drama space, it attracted an all-star team not just on-camera but behind the scenes, where no less than House mastermind David Shore, a guy who can write interesting medical mysteries in his sleep, signed on to translate the Korean drama the series is based on for American audiences.

The series’ Korean basis probably isn’t a huge factor in its success — though you can be assured every other network is now scrupulously surveying the wide world of K-dramas to see if there’s something worth Americanizing — but it doesn’t hurt, either. It provides a solid basis for the show and its characters, while also allowing Shore to tone down some of the melodramatic excess common to K-dramas, in favor of House-style medical mysteries.

That means it occupies a nice middle ground between the soapier elements of something like Grey’s and the more procedural elements of a show like House. Ironically, that turns it into a new spin on something like ER, but that show’s been off the air for almost a decade at this point, meaning the time was even more ripe for another big medical drama. And The Good Doctor was only too happy to oblige, immediately jumping to some of the stuntier things ER did later in its run, including Dr. Murphy performing surgery on a freeway.

3) Audiences are tiring of antihero shows and their trappings

The Good Doctor
Every good doctor does fine.

Quick: What do the three biggest new shows of the past two years — Good Doctor, This Is Us, and Netflix’s Stranger Things (for which we don’t have audience numbers but every other indication suggests is a sensation) — have in common? On the surface, not much. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that they’re all about essentially good people trying to navigate a world that doesn’t always reward those who try to do the right thing.

There are lots of ways to describe this movement. Vulture has dubbed it comfort food TV, for instance. But I increasingly think it’s a slow burn rejection of the antihero movement that has dominated TV for the past several years.

Compare Shaun Murphy to Gregory House. The latter was brilliant, yes, but also an asshole, constantly pushing away those who cared about him and treating his patients with a blithe disregard for their feelings. Dr. Murphy is also brilliant, to be sure, but his rigid perceptions of how the world is meant to work mean that he has very strict ideas of how people should treat each other. His autism is played as something that causes awkward situations for him from time to time, but it’s telling that it’s also played as something that means the other doctors around him are forced to change how they treat each other and their patients — often for the better — simply because Murphy is so certain of how things are supposed to be.

The title of The Good Doctor, then, has a double meaning. He’s a good doctor, in that he excels at his job, but he’s also a good doctor, in that he really does believe in looking out for his patients’ well-being, physical and otherwise. The show’s focus, somewhat subtly, is being a good person, rather than simply being a genius diagnostician or something similar.

For most of TV history, this wouldn’t have been all that notable. TV heroes typically were good people, or at least people who tried to do the right thing, and the exceptions (All in the Family’s Archie Bunker, say, or the foursome on Seinfeld) were notable enough to feel bracingly different.

But the truism that people largely wanted to watch shows about basically good, likable people held true until 1999, when The Sopranos broke wide open the idea that audiences would watch shows about despicable people.

The Good Doctor, This Is Us, and Stranger Things, however, represent three very different pushbacks against this idea, back toward ideas of everyday heroism, of kindness, of basic decency. In a time when it feels like knowing The Right Thing to Do is more complicated than ever, when everything seems to have us at odds with each other, TV is ready, more than ever, to swoop in and tell us that it’s still possible to be a good person, so long as you’re facing one easily solved moral dilemma a week.