Have you heard about this Good Doctor? In addition to being very Good, ABC’s six-year-old procedural about a neurodivergent surgeon has become a viral sensation, breaking free of the meme-scape and landing on a Twitter feed near you. The clips of Dr. Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore) misgendering a patient or screaming, “I am a surgeon, Dr. Han,” make for easy shitposts, reflecting a show at its most absurdly intense or ridiculously dramatic. Both of these make for simple memes.
There’s no getting around it. Stripped of its context, the show seems very funny. It’s easy to see why it’s getting meme’d, too. Highmore’s full-throated performance is perfect for reaction images. Not to mention, his unashamed dramatics are easy to make fun of. Vulnerability is a killer online, making Dr. Han’s (Daniel Dae Kim) reaction a life raft for people who don’t understand this thing. His stoic expression turns the scene into a template for remixes and reactions but also Chad vs. Virgin comparison memes. Variety is the spice of life, and the more ways a single source can be manipulated, the more successful the meme is likely to be.
But there’s more to it than that. This isn’t the same as the Meet Joe Black clip that circulates occasionally. It’s more like the One Tree Hill heart-eating dog. The Good Doctor is a prime example of why so many people online look at network television like it’s from another planet.
Like Yellowstone, The Good Doctor is a popular show that seemingly nobody talks about. It’s been on for six seasons and will return for a seventh. But if it’s so popular, how come no one on Twitter has ever heard of it? The answer is simple: People online generally don’t watch network television with the same enthusiasm as they watch HBO. For the most part, case-of-the-week shows like Good Doctor or 9-1-1 don’t have the stickiness to drive conversations on Twitter. The episodic nature of these shows makes them more ephemeral, disposable, and less substantive for discussion. So while Twitter users gab endlessly about Succession because of the ways it can drill down on character or satire, there’s not as much to talk about when it comes to The Good Doctor. Instead, memers focus on the superficial aspect, which tends toward absurdity out of context.
Network TV works differently from the season-long structures many modern TV viewers are most attracted to. Instead of dropping breadcrumbs over several episodes, every scene on a network series needs to build to a cliffhanger before each ad break, not at the end of an episode. That means turning the drama up to 11 and having the conflict instantly recognizable and reiterating the stakes so channel surfers can jump in at any time. This is also the perfect circumstance to make something silly. Meanwhile, the serialized model, which has become the dominant form of prestige television, allows suspense to build, characters to develop, and plots to reveal. As a result, Game Of Thrones can kill off its main characters, Lost can introduce a polar bear, and Saul Goodman can rename himself Gene Takovic because the viewer believes these things will one day be explained or paid off. Well, maybe that’s not true for Lost, but there’s an expectation that anything can happen, and the viewers will go with it.
But analyzing memes and what causes them only gets you so far, because Good Doctor posting isn’t even a particularly new phenomenon. According to Know Your Meme [Full disclosure: This writer used to be a senior editor there], the “I am a surgeon” trend has been around, at least, since 2021. And unfortunately, the recent rise is a result of the culture war. In late April, The Twitter account @CatchUpFeed shared the clip of Dr. Murphy’s confusion surrounding gender dysmorphia, turning it into transphobic meme fodder. “Incredible. The autistic doctor, who’s the main character on the show, correctly identifies the male patient as a male while everyone around him is in acute denial of reality,” the caption reads. Using The Good Doctor as a cure for the common “woke mind virus” is certainly a take that has attracted Twitter Blue users, pushing the clip outside of that echo chamber. After all, Elon Musk promised increased engagement for paid subscribers.
So why is The Good Doctor suddenly on everyone’s mind? Because someone went viral by stripping it of its context and arming it for the culture war. This brought the “I’m a surgeon meme” roaring back, and here we are. We all know about The Good Doctor now. So who’s going to keep watching?