LOS ANGELES >> Freddie Highmore has seen the light. After four years of playing a murderer-in-training on A&E’s “Bates Motel,” the actor has slipped into the scrubs of Shaun Murphy, the most beloved TV character to carry a stethoscope since George Clooney’s Doug Ross was making rounds on “ER.”
“It’s nice to save people after years of killing them,” Highmore said.
Nice, indeed. “The Good Doctor” is averaging 17 million viewers a week, making it network TV’s No. 1 drama, ahead of “This Is Us” and “NCIS,” an astounding accomplishment for a rookie series, especially on ABC, which had tumbled to fourth place among the coveted 18-49 age demographic.
In many ways, “Doctor” is a routine medical series with cases straight from the files of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” The twist: Murphy has autism, a mental condition that makes him socially awkward. Despite his superior diagnostic skills, the new surgical resident has many of his co-workers campaigning for him to be reassigned to the waiting room.
If his outsider status reminds you of Hugh Laurie’s prickly protagonist on “House,” that’s not a coincidence. Both shows were developed by David Shore.
“There was speculation that Dr. House was on the spectrum, and we certainly didn’t shy away from that, but ultimately the characters couldn’t be more different,” Shore said. “Dr. House, whom I loved, was asking questions from a somewhat cynical and a challenging point of view. Dr. Murphy, whom I also love, is asking them from an innocent, nonjudgmental point of view.”
Shore may be running the smash hit, but its greatest champion is actor Daniel Dae Kim, who has landed on his feet after famously leaving the cast of “Hawaii Five-O” earlier this year over a contract dispute. Kim bought the rights to a South Korean series with the same theme four years ago and dedicated much of his offscreen time to developing an American version through his production company. Despite rejections from CBS, he was convinced U.S. audiences would embrace Murphy.
“In so many dramas today, we see people getting in their own way. Shaun is not one of those people,” Kim said, who is making his debut as an executive producer. “He’s trying to overcome his obstacles and overcome his challenges in a way that I could wholeheartedly root for. I wanted him to succeed. I wanted him to be included. I think that’s a really positive message that is particularly resonant given these political times.”
There’s also the relatability factor. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every 68 children in the United States has autism.
“I think everyone knows somebody with autism, so there’s curiosity,” said Brenda Beukelman, vice president of marketing for Fraser, Minnesota’s largest and most experienced provider of autism services. So far, Beukelman hasn’t missed an episode of the series, which will go into winter hiatus after next week’s installment. “I like how they delve into the emotional side of somebody with autism. Because they are often remote or don’t know how to say things, people think they don’t have feelings and that’s not true.”
Murphy has his fair share of mood swings. He panics after losing a screwdriver in his apartment and beams when treated to a stack of pancakes. He’s not always huggable, recoiling at the very suggestion of having his body squeezed. His confidence can grate on the nerves of his equally egotistical colleagues. His bedside manner also could use some work, whether he’s cheerfully reciting the odds of surviving surgery to a traumatized patient, or blowing an opportunity with a flirtatious neighbor after demanding she return the batteries she borrowed the night before.
Highmore, 25, a London-born actor who broke out as a child opposite Johnny Depp in “Finding Neverland” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” was so taken with the complexities of the character that he signed on just three days after wrapping “Bates Motel.” He praised Shore’s scripts for their ability to be both light and deep without ever coming across as melodramatic.
“We won’t move away from the real struggles that Dr. Murphy will experience because of his condition, but there will also be moments of joy and humor,” he said. “You’ll understand him as a fully formed individual. I know it seems sort of silly having to say it, but I don’t think it has necessarily been done that way in the past.”
Shore echoes that sentiment. While “The Good Doctor” may be getting accolades from the autism community, the last thing he wants to do is serve up a character that defines everyone on the spectrum.
“He’s a very specific character,” Shore said. “He’s not there to represent autism. He’s there to represent Dr. Shaun Murphy.”