Racism and Sexism, treated by The Good Doctor.

If you were here, I would dearly love to turn to you, as I did to Bette, and say, “What just happened?” Here is what I think happened. In the first season of The Good Doctor, they have developed a racism subplot and a sexism subplot to supplement the handicapped theme—the “good doctor” is autistic—which is the main driver of the show.

In Season I,  Episodes 10, 11, and 12, one of these two plot developments absolutely floored me and the other followed a very familiar pattern.  It is the racism subplot that has turned strange; the sexism subplot is thoroughly predictable.

The Sexism Subplot

We are going to have to do some plot now. I’m going to be using a lot of pictures because most of the characters are non-white and that matters in this account.

Step 1 Dr. Coyle (Eric Winter) inappropriately propositions Dr. Browne (Antonia Thomas) in one of the operating rooms racism 6of St. Bonaventure Hospital in San Jose. Here are Dr. Coyle ANTONIA THOMASand Dr. Browne. She reproves him as she should and reports him as she should. But Dr. Kalu, her boyfriend, (that’s a gross characterization, but it’s good enough for this small turn of the plot) is angry and physically assaults Dr. Coyle. And then he gets fired for having done that.

Step 2 Dr. Kalu wants his job back, so he hires a lawyer to make the case that his punishment is much greater than the punishment of several white doctors who were reproved for having done the same thing Dr. Coyle did. [1] The severity of Dr. Kalu’s punishment is said either to be racism or to be something that will look like racism when Dr. Kalu’s lawyer takes the case to court when he sues the hospital.

race 2This requires a confrontation between Allegra Aoki (Tamlyn Tomita),  who is Chair of therace 3 St. Bonaventure Foundation—that means she presides over the sources of the money that fund the hospital—and Jessica Preston, (Beau Garrett) who is Vice Chair of Risk Management. You see them here.

Step 3 Ms. Aoki agrees the settle the case rather than to allow it to go to court, the result of which is the Dr. Kalu gets his job back. That means he returns to his position as surgical resident under Dr. Andrews, who is furious with him for doing what he had to do to get his job back. Here are Dr. Andrews and Dr. Kalu. Keep this picture in your mind when you see the line, “It sets us (us!) back two steps.”

Step 4 Dr. Coyle has been “punished” by being transferred to a different hospital at a higher salary, but that is not enough for Dr. Browne. She complains to Ms. Aoki that the punishment is not severe enough. Ms. Aoki agrees, but says that all Dr. Browne has, from a legal standpoint, is a case of he said/she said, which is not a strong case. So Dr. Browne heads out to round up other women who may have been abused by Dr. Coyle (#me too!) and in the last scene of these three episodes, finds one.

A familiar problem with a familiar solution

Let’s take the harassment problem first. Dr. Coyle is a creep. He is not a racist, but he is a creep. Dr. Browne complained about his behavior and he was punished, but not severely enough to satisfy Dr. Browne, who is pretty sure that Dr. Coyle is going to continue to operate [2] in the way he did at St. Bonaventure. So Dr. Browne goes out looking for other women who may have experiences inappropriate advances from Dr. Coyle.

This is the #me too moment. We are led to believe that if this subplot is continued, Dr. Browne will find a bunch of women—fellow victims—and that Dr. Coyle will finally get what is coming to him.

This is the most common of the current plots. The man is evil and the women are victims, but when they join together, the evil man can be punished appropriately. I’m not making a judgment either about the real world events or the TV drama events that follow this path. I am saying it is the most common current path of the shows I watch or hear discussed. In fact, I might go so far as to say that as a plot device—not as a real life event, but as a dramatic convention—it is trite.

A familiar problem with a twist

The race question goes a different way, although it doesn’t appear, at first, that it is going to. Up in Step 2, I said that there was a clash of sorts between Ms. Aoki and Ms. Preston. Here’s what that looked like.

Preston: The chief oncologist—this is before I came here in December of ’14—Dr. Marshall shoved a scrub nurse during a post-op discussion of some sort. So you remember that?

Aoki: I do.

Preston: Your response was to settle with the nurse while Dr. Marshall was let off with a warning. There’s another almost identical instance later that year. In both cased, the doctors in question were white. They were censured. Dr. Kalu was fired.

Aoki: Do you think this was a racial matter. Do you think I’m racist? That I favor white people?

Preston: Then why the leniency then and not now?

Aoki: They’re stars that happened to be white. Doctors like Dr. Marshall allow St. Bonaventure to compete with other West Coast institutions.

Preston: So that’s our defense. We’re not racist. We just allow our doctors to assault people as long as they bring in enough donors.

Aoki: They were reprimanded and there were no further incidents.

Preston: And how do you think all of this is going to play out in court?

Aoki [pushes the file across the desk to Preston] Settle.

Preston: OK

Neither Ms. Aoki or Ms. Preston thinks that the way Dr. Kalu was disciplined had anything to do with his race. [3] Both look at the damage that can be done to the hospital if Kalu’s case goes to court and Ms. Aoki makes the prudent choice. Settle this out of court.

I think that is not quite standard. The charge is standard. You treat white offenders different than “dark” (Caribbean, maybe?) offenders. But neither of the women in this discussion thinks that issue really is race. They agree that it will look like racism if it goes to court.

The Racism Subplot

But then something blatantly non-standard happens. Not only was I unprepared for it; I found myself nearly speechless when I saw it. I went back and watched that part again to be sure it really happened the way I thought it happened. It did. Here it is.

Dr. Andrews, Chief of Surgery, (Hill Harper) is just leaving for the day when Dr. Kalu (Chuku Mood) catches up to him and tries to engage him in a conversation about what happened in surgery that day at the hospital. Dr. Andrews isn’t having any.

Dr. Kalu Dt. Andrews. Good evening. I…uh…checked out the twins’ file…it’s an amazing case.

Dr. Andrews: To be clear, Jared, I don’t want you here.

Kalu: What we presented to Miss Preston was the truth.

Andrews: I understand that. And those problem doctors and the ways we police ourselves will be dealt with, should have been dealt with a long time ago. But you stepped over a line.

Kalu: I fought for my job.

Andrews: You compromised your integrity. The incident with that jerk Coyle had nothing to do with black or white, but that’s what you and your lawyer sold for leverage. And when you misrepresent racism for something it’s not…it sets us two steps back.

So how is the racism question being dealt with here? Very differently that the sexual harassment question certainly! I said that development of the harassment theme was trite as a dramatic narrative. This one is pathbreaking.

race 1Dr. Andrews, the black Chief of Surgery, (on the right) reproves Dr. Kalu, the dark race 4surgical intern, (on the left) for playing the race card inappropriately. Kalu defends himself by arguing that the case he made—white doctors in that situation have been treated differently than he was—is true. Andrews says that isn’t a good enough excuse. “You stepped over a line,” he says. He doesn’t say what “the line” was, but he is about to.

Kalu defends himself again. He was just doing what was necessary to get his job back. He is right about that. Nothing less that threatening an embarrassing and unsuccessful appearance in court would have caused the hospital to settle. But that isn’t the line Dr. Andrews is talking about. He says that Kalu compromised his integrity. That is not something you ordinarily hear a victim of racism accused of, and very probably no one who is not black and not his superior at the hospital could have said it.

What did Kalu do wrong, according to Andrews? Kalu knew that the discipline he received had nothing at all to do with race, but he and his lawyer used race anyway, just as leverage. Then come two really important final steps. The first is this: “When you misrepresent racism for something it’s not….” Your punishment had nothing to do with racism and you knew that, but you said it did and you said that for your own advantage.

The second is this: “…it sets us back two steps.” Us. The differences between Dr. Andrews and Dr. Kalu, so far, have been that Andrews is Kalu’s immediate superior. Andrews is Chief Surgeon. Kalu is a resident in surgery. Kalu is a hothead and romantically involved with another resident. Andrews is not a hothead, and in his position, he couldn’t afford to be. And he knows the risks he runs by having a hot-tempered resident on his staff. We know about those differences. They have been clearly shown to us in previous episodes.

“Us” has not been clearly shown. “You and I,” Andrews is saying, “are people who have been and who will continue to be, subjected to racism. We have been making progress; slow and painful, step by step progress. And you have just set ‘us’ back two steps.”

Andrews here addresses Kalu as a fellow black man. That’s what “us” means. It is hard enough to make any progress in undoing the knot of racism without some of the victims playing fast and loose with the truth. “The truth” here is given a very high place. “Making a dent in racism” is given a lesser place. If one is to be sacrificed to the other, is the the crusade against racism that is the give way and the truth of the matter to be preserved and it is especially the work of the black victims of racism to demand it.

Sexism and Racism

So…I don’t know. I’ve never seen these two liberal subplots running along side by side and then watch one change direction drastically while the other keeps on going. I suspect the marketing department at ABC knows something I don’t know. Do they have a liberal fan base and a conservative fan base and decided to give one subplot to each? Do they have one tribal fan base—racism, anti-racism, sexism, and anti-sexism are all tribal affiliations—and one judicious, let the facts speak for themselves fan base?

Surely not. If I were in marketing for ABC, I would certainly argue that the network is going to make more money pandering to the tribal affiliations–either one, let alone one for each– than to the judicious, above-it-all group.

Any ideas?

[1] This is a plot problem of sorts. No one is accused of having done what Dr. Kalu did, which was to physically assault another member of the hospital staff.
[2] The notion of “a smooth operator” in a hospital-based show is really asking for trouble, but there it is. The language will stand only so much twisting and bending.
[3] There is a nice moment, though, when Aoki, who is Japanese, asks Preston, who is white, if she really thinks Aoki is racist. Really?


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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