Public Service Announcement 62 of 2019: The Good Doctor

ABC’s The Good Doctor returns to UK screens tonight for its third season. It’s a mostly excellent and occasionally outstanding medical procedural in which Freddie Highmore plays Shaun Murphy, a gifted surgeon who has high-functioning autism. In its first year it was very much about Shaun, but  it detectably became more of an ensemble show during season 2, focussing less on Highmore’s character and more on the rest of the (talented, it should be said) cast. Which meant, in turn, that it became a bit more of a standard snipping-and-shipping hospital drama, but without any drop-off in quality, which is a nice balance to strike. As with the first two seasons, I’ll be reviewing episode-by-episode (tonight, 9pm, Sky Witness).


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Shaun, sacked in last week’s episode by Han, skips a job interview to go drinking in a bar, where he successfully goads another patron, Zack, into assaulting him. But just as Zack is winding up to give Shaun a thorough going-over he falls to the ground. Shaun takes Zack to the hospital, but without revealing how he happened to be there when Zack took ill. Which poses something of a problem when Shaun starts to cough up blood as a result of being beaten. He then realises that Zack has been misdiagnosed, but all he can manage to say is that Zack needs immediate treatment for something that sounds like “trampoline” before collapsing himself.

This, of course, is a bit of a pickle for everyone in the hospital: master diagnostician Shaun has come up with a master diagnosis, but no-one knows what it is. Then Claire has a great idea: what if she channels Shaun? She stands in the same position as Shaun was standing, tries to think in the same way… and, sure enough, works out what Shaun was saying. Zack is successfully treated. And, in turn, this provides Andrews with evidence that Shaun is an inspirational figure who needs to be rehired as a surgeon. Uh, no, says Han; I get to control my staff. Uh, no, says Andrews; they’re not your staff any more, dude, because I’m getting rid of you. This is what I expected to happen, but it’s a bit of a shame, I think: I’ve enjoyed having Daniel Dae Kim, and his unbelievably sharp cheekbones, around. 

This being the final episode of the season, there are plenty of relationship developments. Glassman proposes marriage to Debbie, who is enough of an idiot to accept. More happily, Lim and Melendez are interviewed by hospital HR (?) in order for their workplace relationship to be endorsed. Having confirmed that they’ve had sex, and plan to again in the future, the interviewer mulls the situation. “Neither of you”, she observes, “are in a subservient position to the other”. “Well, sometimes…”, Lim offers brightly, reminding me, YET AGAIN, that adding Christina Chang to the permanent cast is someone’s best decision ever.

Lim and Melendez, approved as a couple, are then able to make out in public. And do, vigorously. However, Han’s dismissal means that the chief of surgery job has opened up again, and if one of them takes it they’ll need to split up. They both agree that if offered the job, they’d take it. One of them is offered it.

And Shaun gets dressed up, clutching flowers and chocolates, in order to ask someone out. But not Lea. (Or, as I thought for a second, Claire.) In fact, he’s not as immune to the perky charms of Carly as I thought he was; and, having dreaded for months the possibility of Shaun offering himself to Lea for certain rejection, I now find that I’m entirely on board with the possibility of Shaun and Carly. As, it seems, is she, because she agrees to go out with him.

Which means that we finish the season with Shaun back as a surgeon, a possible romance on the horizon, and barely a cliffhanger in sight. It’s a happy ending, but fair enough; the show has earned it. It’s been an excellent year, with a handful of episodes which can properly be described as outstanding.

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Two Cases this week, in a fantastic episode. Kenny has a 200lb tumour – props to the production design team for this one, although I’d be at least as happy if we’d been left to imagine it, tbh – which is to be removed by a Melendez-led surgical team. And Laura, an old friend of Lim’s, is in with her newborn daughter, who has brain injury symptoms consistent with being shaken. Lim follows the scientific evidence to its logical conclusion, while Laura continues to insist that no-one has been abusing her baby.

And Shaun is still marooned in pathology, still very unhappy about it – despite the support of the ever-perky Carly – and still hoping to persuade Han that he should be allowed back in. His ongoing problem is that Han is unpersuadable, no matter what he does. In fact, not content this week with just one spectacular save, Shaun comes up with two. The surgery on Kenny goes badly wrong. Melendez, who knows Shaun’s talent for three-dimensional thinking, calls him in for a consult on Kenny, and Shaun provides a solution which will allow for both the removal of the tumour and the survival of the patient. 

Meantime, he also comes up with another interpretation of Laura’s baby’s injuries, one which would mean that Laura didn’t abuse her daughter, and which proves to be consistent with the medical evidence. Laura is understandably unhappy that her friend thought her capable of assaulting her baby, but nonetheless perhaps a little ad hominem about it. “You don’t understand love”, she tells Lim; who, in response, persuades Melendez that the two of them should be open about their relationship.

For Shaun, it’s all further proof that he should be back in surgery, and he corners Han in his office, saying that he’ll refuse to leave unless Han gives him his old job back. “I am a surgeon!” he shouts over and over; once again, in Han’s eyes, proving his point, and ending – I think – in Shaun’s dismissal. I worry that the upshot of all of this, in the season finale, will be that Han will leave and Shaun will stay. I’d quite like Han to hang around; the scene this week in which he proves himself quite the master of hospital realpolitik with the tribunal investigating Shaun, Melendez, and Lim, was a delight. But I suspect that there’s only room for one of them at San Jose St Bonaventure. And Glassman finally gets the all-clear, which with any luck will mean that he can get a proper storyline again.

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Following Han’s orders in last week’s episode, Shaun has moved from surgery to pathology, where he’s shown the ropes by the perky and personable Dr Carla Lever. Her perky personableness does not, however, move Shaun, who still hankers after a return to surgery. And he sees an opportunity for just that, when Sadie, a young woman who presents with vague symptoms of tingling limbs and a premonition of doom, is  scanned and diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. Shaun, however, thinks that Sadie has something else, and wants to talk to her to work up a full history. 

This request is rejected, but his conclusion is correct: Sadie is, in fact, suffering from an unpleasant but entirely non-fatal parasite thing related to the eating of sushi. Unfortunately, Han takes the view that this kind of proves his point: Shaun has terrific diagnostic skills, which make him ideal for pathology; and he’s unlikely ever to develop his communication skills to the point where he’s suitable for surgery. So Shaun stays where he is. Whether that decision is right or wrong I’m not yet convinced that Han is a bad guy per se. Maybe he’ll do something vicious next week.

The other Case of the Week features Clarence, a pastor with a tumour on his spine. This one is treatable, but Clarence wants a risky intervention which will remove the tumour but leave him with pain he thinks he deserves for failing to save a parishioner from suicide. This is clearly idiotic, whatever one’s view of religious faith, but if that’s what the patient wants that’s what the patient gets. The funny thing, though, is that when the tumour is removed it’s shrunk to half its original size without any apparent medical reason. Is it a miracle? Or is it explicable? Morgan (theist) and Claire (agnostic, I’d say, rather than flat-out atheist) debate the relevant issues. And who’s to say? Not the writers, who leave it unresolved. A good rather than exceptional episode.

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Although The Good Doctor has been on generally excellent form recently, it has undoubtedly lost some of its focus on Shaun and changed into something of an ensemble show, a little bit more like a traditional medical procedural. Does it need a disruptor? Well, it’s got one. Step forward Dr Jackson Han, the new chief of surgery, played by our old friend Daniel Dae Kim, who of course also exec produces the show. Which presumably means that when he says he wants to play a brilliant, high-paid, high-maintenance, high-cheekboned surgeon, that’s what he gets to do.

Han starts off by turning up late for his own welcome brunch – next time I move jobs I totally want a welcome brunch, or just a brunch – and scrubbing into an incredibly delicate operation on Persie, a new-born with a catalogue of medical problems, poor little thing. He puts loud music on, which immediately throws Shaun off balance, and starts firing questions at the interns. “Shame-based learning”, Lim admonishes gently afterwards, “isn’t my style”. Then Han tells Melendez to run a full preventative workup on Minesh, a wealthy hospital donor. Melendez is somewhat put out, but complies with the “request”, and finds that Minesh has a tumour which is probably benign, but might not be; and they won’t know unless or until it kills him or is removed. Minesh has to decide whether to have risky surgery to take it out.

Persie, meantime, spends most of the episode on the operating table, as the surgeons desperately try to save her. Her mother wonders whether the antidepressants she took before she knew she was pregnant might have caused the birth defects. Shaun allows that they might have, which incurs Han’s wrath; and although Lim and Claire defend Shaun’s improving communication skills, it’s clear that Han has already taken agin Shaun; or, at least, his bedside manner. Shaun later comes up with a quite phenomenal save to keep Persie alive, but Han has made his mind up: Shaun is going to pathology, where he can use his undoubted diagnostic skills while not interacting with patients.

Finally, Glassman’s storyline continues to be the least successful part of the show: this week he’s encouraged, by fellow-patient Larry, to embrace cancer as an identity. Larry seems kind of annoying, but what do I know? I’ve never been there. On the whole, though, a great episode. Directed by Freddie Highmore himself, incidentally.

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After last week’s terrific – and bracingly original – episode, this one sticks much more closely to the standard medical drama playbook. It’s also great, though, which provides further confirmation that The Good Doctor is currently at the top of its game.

There’s only one Case of the Week, but it’s a biggie: Molly, a teenage girl, is undergoing a gruelling series of operations to reconstruct her face after suffering grievous injuries from an accidental gunshot. (Way to go, Second Amendment! Another win!) By happy coincidence, 14-year-old Karen is pronounced brain dead, but facially intact, after a car smash. Uh, facial transplant? Karen’s mom Shannon is asked. Uh, no, she replies, until Claire adroitly facilitates an accidental encounter between Shannon and Molly, whereupon she gives the thumbs-up. It’s the tried-and-tested transplant plot, with the additional psychological spin that comes from (a) waking up to see another face looking back at you in the mirror; and (b) seeing someone else with your dead daughter’s face. And a subplot in which Melendez has to concede that he’s treating Lim differently – specifically, he’s uncharacteristically deferential to her expertise – now that they’re hooking up. Not that they’re going to stop, though, and why the hell would they?

Meantime, Glassman and Shaun get high on Glassy’s medical marijuana, then decide to go on a journey to Portland, Oregon, to find Robin, the woman Glassman was in unrequited love with in high school. So it’s a combination of straights on drugs and a road-trip. Nothing novel, but once again the show manages to find some new angles: Shaun realising that he has feelings for Lea; Glassman revealing that he needs to apologise to Robin for what he wrote in her yearbook; Robin’s bland assurances that she doesn’t recall what he’s talking about, followed by a scene which suggests she remembers it very well. I don’t like road trip episodes, and even I was moved.

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In the best of the week’s numerous plots, Lana – a woman in her 30s with autism – requires brain surgery, which even if successful might render her incapable of speech. Her friend, Javi, who also has autism, visits her from time to time, but both are clear that they’re just roommates, not romantic partners. Except they also have sex. “It’s frequently better than masturbation”, explains Lana. “High praise”, murmurs Dr Lim, who is pretty clear that Lana and Javi should be left to define their own relationship however they please, while Morgan is somewhat keener to persuade them that they have feelings for each other. And to get Shaun to help with communication. “What are you looking at him for?” Lim demands of Morgan. “It’s not like they all know each other”. 

Lana, and her capacity for language, are saved by surgery, and by the end it appears that she and Javi are edging towards acknowledging their feelings. “I think I love you”, Javi says to Lana. “I think you do too”, she replies. It’s unexpectedly but profoundly moving, and made more so by the fact that both of the actors – Vered Blonstein and Alex Plank – (a) are terrific; and (b) have autism themselves. In an ideal world this would probably be less noteworthy than it is.

Elsewhere in the hospital there’s a 70-year-old woman flatlining, which is inexplicable to start with, because blood is still getting round her body. It turns out that she has a mechanical heart, which was implanted in her by a surgeon in Beijing, and she’ll need to go back there for it to be fixed properly. Her condition then deteriorates, though, at least in part because of the stress caused by the reappearance of her daughter, who she hasn’t spoken to in 15 years. This is complicated by the presence in her life of a woman, a sort of substitute daughter, about the same age as her biological daughter.

And Shaun, in addition to medical duties, has to try and come to terms with Jake, Lea’s new boyfriend. Shaun thinks they can all be friends, and watch movies and eat popcorn together. Which, as Lea explains, they can; but she and Jake also need some grown-up lying-down-together time. Shaun seems less keen on this idea, perhaps inspired by what he saw of the relationship between Lana and Javi. His mood isn’t helped by the fact that Glassman is suffering from the effects of chemotherapy but doesn’t want Shaun around to look after him, in response to which Shaun, almost despairingly, becomes almost aggressive in his attempts to provide support. What a great episode. I keep getting knocked sideways by just how good this show is.