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How ABC’s The Good Doctor is Changing Television

There's a lot of "good" being tossed around on TV these days, from NBC's "The Good Place" to CBS's "The Good Fight," but it's "The Good Doctor" on ABC that is the good word in diversity and is changing television. "The Good Doctor" was one of the panels at PaleyFest LA 2018 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. On board for the panel Thursday night were eight members of the production with ABC7 entertainment reporter George Pennacchio moderating.

The series is about a brilliant surgical resident named Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore), who has been diagnosed with autism and savant syndrome. As a child, he ran away from an abusive home with his younger, protective brother, but following his brother's accidental death, he found sympathy and understanding from a doctor named Aaron Glassman (Richard Schiff), who has his own tragic backstory.  Now the president of San Jose Bonadventure Hospital, Glassman has championed Shaun as a resident in his hospital against the skeptical attitude of chief of surgery and board member Dr. Marcus Andrews (Hill Harper). The chairman and vice president, Allegra Aoki (Tamlyn Tomita), is the neutral voice between the two men. Under Dr. Neil Melendez (Nicholas Gonzalez), the attending cardiothoracic surgeon in charge of surgical residents, Shaun finds a friend in Claire Brown (Antonia Thomas) and a buddy in Jarel Kalu (Chuku Modu). Midseason, they are joined by ambitious and calculating new resident Morgan Reznick (Fiona Gubelmann) and ex-cop-turned-doc Alex Park (Will Yun Lee).

"The Good Doctor" is based on a 2013 South Korean limited series of the same name that had only 20 episodes. The American series is a gamble that has paid off for executive producer Daniel Dae Kim. Last year, Kim made waves on the set of CBS' "Hawaii 5-0" when he asked for pay parity, but left after being refused. CBS had also originally bought the series from Kim, but when the project stalled, Kim bought back the rights and found a new home at Sony Pictures Television with the creator of "House" on board. The program debuted on ABC in September of last year, and quickly became the #1 new show of 2017-18.

On the panel—which included Kim, Shore, Highmore, Gonzalez, Thomas, Schiff, Harper and Tomita—Kim stated, "It's important to have not only diversity in front of the camera, but behind it. I couldn't be prouder of the team that I'm working with, because I know that's important across the board." He noted this is the first time that a South Korean drama has been brought to a US audience and been given a second season. When asked if he would make an appearance, Kim said, "I would love to at some point" because "I am such a fan of the writing, such a fan of these actors" so if the right storyline comes at the right time, don't be surprised to see Kim in front of the camera.

Already in front of the camera, Tomita expressed her delight at playing a powerful woman who is "calm and cool and collected." It seems a rare opportunity to play "a woman of color running one of the most prestigious hospitals in the nation" and hopes this reflects what is really going on this the world. Harper, who is based on the East Coast, confessed, "I'll move wherever there is great writing." (The series is filmed in Vancouver).

A recent development had Schiff's doctor beginning a romance with a woman played by his real wife, Sheila Kelley. Previously, he and his wife had played exes. Schiff exclaimed, "I could not be more in love or in awe with my wife" and he was so ecstatic and giddy that he "enjoyed every second of her being on the set." Otherwise, Schiff was more reticent and noted, "You know why people think I'm smart? Because I don't talk a lot." Still he said he does try to "turn off my brain" and go with an intuitive flow. Tomita added that acting "isn't about feeling stuff; it’s about how you make the other actors feel."

The cast seems chummy and Gonzalez says they all work well together, and it seems "we're having way too much fun" with characters that are "fully fleshed out." At the beginning he worried that the network was "never going to let us do this." This kind of situation doesn't come around very often although he later confessed to some accommodations since communicating with an actor who is portraying autism has challenges. Eye contact is one of them.

Highmore stated that the positive reaction from people who either have autism or know people who do has been inspiring. And while Highmore doesn't have autism, the show has featured an actor with autism (Coby Bird who was in the audience last night). While Highmore and the writers have worked to "make [Shaun] authentic" they are also "constructing Shaun as an individual in his own right." Unlike many series where the characters rarely change, Shaun "will always have autism but he will change. He has to change. He's changed dramatically in this season." And the face and look of a hit television ensemble is changing with him.

Jana Monji

Jana Monji, made in San Diego, California, lost in Japan several times, has written about theater and movies for the LA Weekly, LA Times, and currently, and the Pasadena Weekly. Her short fiction has been published in the Asian American Literary Review.

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