There are many reasons that The Good Doctor became this year’s breakout freshman drama, as detailed in this week’s cover story. But showrunner and executive producer David Shore says the real secret of the ABC medical drama’s success is its star, Freddie Highmore, who plays autistic surgeon, Dr. Shaun Murphy.
“On day one of filming, it just came to life,” recalled Shore. “It’s a role that is easy to do badly—and he has done it exquisitely. You just get the sense that there’s so much going on behind those eyes, even though it’s not being communicated in a traditional way.”
Highmore spoke with Adweek about why he initially turned down the role last year, why he insisted on capping the season at 18 episodes and what’s on tap for Season 2 after last night’s season finale.
How ‘no’ became ‘yes’
After wrapping five seasons as Norman Bates on A&E’s psycho prequel Bates Motel, Highmore was wary of diving immediately into another long-running TV series just days later. So while he was intrigued by playing Shaun Murphy, he initially passed on the role.
“When you’ve just finished a show that had been on for five seasons, you’re aware of the necessary commitment that is behind it, and the fact that you need to choose wisely because otherwise you could end up on something that you might not want to be doing for years and years,” said Highmore.
“The crazy thing about pilot season is everything is so quick and thrust upon you with such immediacy that the decisions need to be made within hours. I guess it was just a case of finally getting home and sitting down and figuring out that this was indeed the right thing to be doing, and not wanting to jump into something if you couldn’t commit yourself a hundred percent to it. But it was really talking with David Shore that convinced me that this was going to be a wonderful project to be a part of.”
Eighteen is enough
One way that Sony Pictures Television, which produces the series, was able to convince Highmore was to sign him to a deal that caps each season at 18 episodes, instead of the standard 22-episode season for broadcast dramas. While some actors insist on shorter-than-normal orders to give themselves more time to squeeze in other film and theater projects, Highmore said that wasn’t the case here.
“It’s the idea of making the show as good as it can possibly be,” he said. “You feel better in a slightly more contained version of a season. You’d never want to just be doing more for the sake of it, and so it seems like a wise idea to start with that and see how things go.”
Highmore thinks that The Good Doctor has become a hit because it serves as a needed beacon of positivity in the world. “I think people have responded to the optimism, that idea of people wanting to get behind someone who has a hopeful outlook on the world in a time where there is so much negativity that’s so easy to come by. You don’t necessarily want to turn on your television and see more,” he said.
“And then I think there’s an innate curiosity to the way in which Shaun views the world that’s also intriguing and makes us better as people learning through him. He asks questions on the show that I think are interesting questions for us to consider in our day-to-day lives, and hopefully that sticks with people after they’ve finished.”
One week at a time
Viewers are increasingly binge-watching entire seasons of TV, but Highmore said The Good Doctor’s success proves that there’s still value to broadcast’s weekly model.
“I wonder whether seeing the journey of Shaun over time is better placed over the course of several months, as opposed to someone sitting down and binge-watching an entire season of it,” he said. “I think there’s something to be said about a model that still gives you bits of the story week after week, instead of everything in one long go, that changes your relationship with the show. It might be more positive in this case for it to be a sort of long-term relationship, as opposed to something that’s sort of done and dusted within a week.”
Watching one episode a week “allows for a greater conversation about the show” than binge-watching, he said. “And hopefully The Good Doctor raises questions that are interesting to seek answers to with friends or colleagues at work. If everyone watched it individually over the course of a weekend, you’d miss out on that discussion and the questions that the show poses.”
Getting ready for Season 2
With The Good Doctor’s season finale airing last night, Highmore is already looking ahead to Season 2. “There’s so much more room for growth from Shaun’s point of view. It’s interesting, this idea of acceptance and to what extent Shaun will ever reach a point where people will wholeheartedly embrace him, or whether there’s one particular mistake that he can make, that will then change people’s opinions of him and reset them back to the beginning of the pilot, as proof of what we knew about him all along,” he said.
Highmore also hopes to write or direct some episodes next season, much as he did during Bates Motel’s run. “I’d love to be involved in that way in the second season,” he said.