Medical dramas are nothing new for television - their life and death stakes making them a favourite with audiences and producers alike. But The Good Doctor has set itself apart from the likes of ER and Grey's Anatomy - thanks to one critical distinction: the main character, a gifted surgeon named Shaun Murphy, is autistic.

The series, which premiered in America in September, has become a breakout success - hailed as one of the best new dramas to hit screens in 2017.

Lead actor Freddie Highmore, who plays Murphy, says he hopes the series represents a new evolution in how television portrays autistic characters.

"I'm not sure if it's unique, but it's certainly rare to own the subject as much as The Good Doctor is doing," Highmore tells TimeOut. "And I feel that's necessary."


Adapted from an award-winning South Korean series by House creator David Shore, The Good Doctor begins with Murphy joining the surgical staff of a prestigious New Mexico hospital at the behest of his mentor and close friend, hospital president Aaron Glassman (The West Wing's Richard Schiff). It's a move that is met with resistance by almost everybody else in the hospital.

"You see the extent to which people with autism are discriminated against in the workplace," says Highmore, who viewers will recognise as the former British child star from Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

A young Freddie Highmore as Charlie in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
A young Freddie Highmore as Charlie in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

"Often those conversations take place behind closed doors and we're not even aware that they're going on. And so I think having a show that will hopefully spark a dialogue and doesn't seek to hide behind a wishy-washy sense of whether the lead character does or doesn't have autism, I think is important."

In addition to being the most popular new drama of the year, The Good Doctor has received acclaim from the autistic community.

"There was an Autism Speaks gala here in LA and the show was honoured at that and obviously that was a huge thing for us. I'm incredibly grateful and proud that the show has connected with those within that community. Meeting people who are both on the spectrum themselves or who are very close to those who are, it's inspiring to get to see how they connected with it."

Highmore admits the subject matter comes with a certain degree of responsibility.

"We felt that responsibility from the very beginning in wanting to make sure that Shaun never becomes a caricature."

The Good Doctor will help put to rest some of the cliches about autism.

"I think that what sets Shaun apart from perhaps other portrayals of people who have autism on TV and in film, is that he's not that stereotypically emotionless person. We get to see what makes him laugh, who he may fall in love with, how and when he's happy and what excites him. It's not about negating the very real struggle that he faces by dint of having autism, but at the same time it's celebrating the unique view of the world that he does have."

As proud of the portrayal as Highmore is, he is keen to stress that Shaun Murphy is a specific take on the subject.

"The important thing to remember is that Shaun will never, nor should he represent everyone who is on the spectrum. In the same way a neurotypical main character of a show will never represent the plethora and wide range of people that are neurotypical. We're telling Shaun's story. His individual life and his individual personality. And yes, he has autism and he also has savant syndrome, but he's not only defined by those two characteristics."

The Good Doctor is Highmore's second major role in a TV series, following the Psycho prequel Bates Motel, which saw him play the young serial-killer-in-training Norman Bates with unnerving conviction.

Like Bates Motel, The Good Doctor is filmed in Vancouver, Canada.

"To some extent, we've managed to reassemble a lot of the main crew who were working on that show now that we're back in Vancouver. Our director of photography, John Bartley, is from New Zealand. It makes me incredibly happy that he's a part of it. He did X-Files, he did Lost, he's been working in North America for a long time, and then he did Bates Motel for five seasons with me. And so I was like, 'Please come back and do The Good Doctor.'"

Who: Freddie Highmore
What: The Good Doctor
Where: Streaming now on Lightbox