How The Good Doctor responds to and moves on from House

Alex Moreland
·Contributor
Freddie Highmore as Dr Shaun Murphy in The Good Doctor (ABC)
Freddie Highmore as Dr Shaun Murphy in The Good Doctor (ABC)

It’s not difficult to read The Good Doctor as something of a spiritual sequel to House; indeed, the programme almost asks you to.

Certainly, the two dramas share particular thematic concerns. Both are about brilliant doctors positioned as liminal figures, using medical drama as a lens to advance a character study. Their eponymous stars are, if not isolated, placed at the periphery of society: in House, because of House’s misanthropy, borne of his chronic pain and depression; in The Good Doctor, it’s a result of Shaun Murphy’s autism.

You can see the same character archetypes recurring across each programme; parallels can be drawn between, for example, House’s Foreman and The Good Doctor’s Melendez, Chase and Kalu, Amber and Morgan, and indeed various other characters. In a sense, many aspects of the basic premise and initial character dynamics of The Good Doctor feel a little like a remixed and reconstituted version of its most obvious antecedent – the two shows even share a similar visual style. Of course, that’s largely to be expected; House and The Good Doctor share a producer and showrunner in David Shore, who was brought onto The Good Doctor in no small part because of his experience and success with the prior show.

Where House had a vein of nihilism running through it, however, The Good Doctor is a fundamentally more hopeful programme. This is inarguably the biggest difference between the two shows, each with almost diametrically opposed central perspectives forming. As stated, House always had a vein of nihilism running through it – a product of the eponymous character’s misanthropy, and his distrust and often disdain of those around him. There’s a certain cynicism to House, a programme generally disposed to reach for the dour note and underscore a sense of world-weary scepticism. The Good Doctor, meanwhile, is decidedly more sentimental in approach, more inclined to find and dwell on a positive note – a programme that finds value in life and in people, rather than just pain.

Hugh Laurie as Dr Greg House (Fox)
Hugh Laurie as Dr Greg House (Fox)

In that sense, you can also start to see how The Good Doctor begins to break away from House, subverting its norms and standards. House is very much a programme of its time; focused on a central antihero, the embodiment of the tortured genius who repeats time and time again across fiction. Undeniably, House is an engaging and compelling execution of the trope, head and shoulders above a lot of the genre and, arguably, unique in its own ways. Yet, in hindsight, you can see where House has aged poorly. There’s moments where it leans too heavily on stereotypes, moments of casual transphobia, and one particularly egregious episode dedicated to proving a patient’s asexuality is a symptom of brain disease. It is, in short, a show that – for all its strengths – could at times be typical of the uncomfortable excesses of that style of white male antihero.

The Good Doctor, in contrast, marks real progress on that front. It displays a certain sensitivity that House often lacked: an arc lasting several episodes refutes the sort of sexual harassment House often played for laughs; an episode with a transgender patient firmly validates their identity; the series as a whole is more careful in its depiction of autism than House ever was. Admittedly it’s debatable how effective The Good Doctor is in its representation of autism, and a neurotypical perspective of such is going to be limited; for what it’s worth, while early episodes relied a little too much on the savant stereotype, as the series went on its depiction of Shaun’s autism became far more well-rounded. It’s not perfect, no; you get the sense that it’d help considerably if The Good Doctor had a few more writers with autism involved in production, and to include some more autistic characters to get away from the ‘single story’ issue. Nonetheless, though, it all adds up to a programme that’s much more inclusive than House ever was.

In a sense, you can start to read The Good Doctor as an effort to exorcise House’s worst impulses; it’s not that it’s a better show, exactly, because this isn’t, or isn’t just, a question of quality. Rather, it’s a show that responds to its most obvious antecedent on nearly every level – at every moment, there’s a sense that The Good Doctor is conscious of what came before, carrying that awareness through its storytelling. Thus, it’s obvious, then, that The Good Doctor isn’t just a spiritual sequel to House, but a drama that responds to and moves on from it, forging its own path forward.

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