“The Good Doctor” broke all norms when it debuted on ABC last fall, the same network that proudly carries “Grey’s Anatomy” on its shoulder. This new medical drama, however, continued to climb the ratings chart and received rave reviews for original, nuanced storytelling. Writer and producer Simran Baidwan is part of the successful crew behind “The Good Doctor.”
The show, starring Freddie Highmore, is an emotional and relevant story about a savant autistic surgeon at a San Jose hospital. It concluded its first season in March but its already been renewed for a season two, which means we get to see more of Baidwan’s work come to life.
Her career in the industry began when she assisted the executive producer of CBS‘s “Judging Amy.” Since then, she has written for other dramas like “Bull,” “Royal Pains,” and “Conviction.” It helps that she is also a well-established lawyer. As a child of Indian immigrants, she went on to fulfill her parents dreams of pursuing law. They were equally supportive of her decision to move to L.A. and venture into Hollywood.
We spoke to Baidwan about the experiences on working for such a triumphant TV show, her creative writing process, and what it was like growing up as a second-generation immigrant and how she uses that to propel authentic stories.
The Teal Mango: It’s been an excellent year for you with the unprecedented success of “The Good Doctor,” the ABC drama for which you write and produce. In a TV landscape that already has so many medical shows, did you expect this one to do so well?
Simran Baidwan: You always hope for this kind of reception but it’s never expected. I knew when I read and watched the pilot of “The Good Doctor” that David Shore had created something special, but you don’t know if the critics and viewers will feel the same way. We’re grateful for the audience and support.
TTM: “The Good Doctor” is a very special story, in my opinion. It focuses on this autistic doctor Shaun, played perfectly by Freddie Highmore, and the rest of the cast is very talented and diverse. What is it like to write for all these varying characters and what steps do you take to make sure you’re doing them justice?
Baidwan: We’re thrilled to have such a dynamic cast. Creating stories for the complex characters they so beautifully portray is every writer’s dream. One of the ways we ensure highlighting each character in a unique manner is by not trying to give everyone their due in every episode. We spend a lot of time carefully crafting special stories for each character, then give each of them their own specific time to shine.
TTM: You’ve written episodes for shows like “Bull” and “Conviction,” which I assume would be relatively easier for you because of your own law background. But you’ve also written for “Royal Pains,” “Chicago Med,” and of course, “The Good Doctor.” What experiences do you draw from while working on such different shows?
Baidwan: Whether it’s a legal show or a medical show or a zombie show, for me, great writing and great television is always about compelling characters and the human condition. As a writer, I pull from every aspect of my life to create the most interesting characters and engaging stories possible. Being a child of Indian immigrants, having a large extended family, being raised in the Bay Area, having gone to undergrad and law school in San Diego, having been a prosecutor, being married to someone outside my religion and culture, raising bi-racial children, I think my story and experiences are unique. There isn’t a script I’ve written that doesn’t have a little piece of me or my journey in there.
But I am also an observational sponge. I love watching people, hearing tidbits of conversations at coffee shops, dinner parties, museums, parks, even the checkout line at Target. I take those little snapshots of people’s lives, blow them up with my imagination so they’re dynamic yet relatable and put them in my scripts.
TTM: As a South Asian-American writer and producer in this industry, what emphasis would you place in having a person of color not only on-screen but also off-screen in the to ensure accurate desi representation?
Baidwan: My answer is kind of a continuation of your previous question in that who I am is built upon where I came from, how I was raised, what events I’ve experienced, the people in my life, my daily observations and interactions with my local and global communities – all of that (and so much more) shapes my individual personality and how I navigate in the world. But this is true of everyone. And this is why it’s so incredibly important to have a diverse writers’ room full of people from all walks of life – brown, black, LGBTQ, people with disabilities, older writers, you name it, we all have special stories to tell. And the more inclusive Hollywood is of these voices behind the camera, the more accurate, dynamic and compelling stories we will be able to tell on the screen.
TTM: Looking back at the years you’ve spent not only as part of Hollywood but also consuming its content, how do you think South Asian representation has evolved and why do you think, in the last few years, its been on the rise?
Before Mindy Kaling created “The Mindy Project” in 2012 there were no desi leads anywhere on American television. She was the first. Sure there were some good supporting cast roles here and there for South Asian actors that were not terrorists, cab drivers or convenience store workers, but they were few and far between. I think Hollywood executives took note of Mindy’s ability to create smart content, draw in viewers and have critical success, and were then willing to expand their perceptions of South Asians on the screen. But it’s still been a very slow rise, most of which has been propelled by South Asian creators putting themselves at the forefront of their film and television projects (like Mindy, Aziz Ansari and Kumail Nanjiani).
Would I love to see every network have a show with a South Asian lead? Absolutely. But for now, I’ll take seeing even more of them as part of principle ensembles in non-stereotypical roles. I think we will truly see a greater shift in the landscape when we have more South Asians working in every capacity in Hollywood, not just writers and actors, but also directors, producers, crews, executives and agents. There’s room for everybody.
TTM: Growing up in Fremont with parents who were immigrants, how was that shaped you into the writer you are today? Do you feel compelled to tell more authentic stories about the second generation experience?
Baidwan: I moved to Fremont from San Jose when I was about 6 years old. And the main thing I remember was being the only person of color in my first grade class. Everything about me stuck out – I was brown, I had two long, black braids and I had a “weird” name. I wished so badly that my name was Jennifer or Stephanie or Ashley. I also remember coming home from school and having the rich scents of the Punjabi dinner my mom was cooking hit me as I walked through the front door, and I would immediately run up to my room to make sure my bedroom door was closed so that my room didn’t smell of masala when my friends came over. “Why couldn’t we be ‘normal’?”
My mom was very patient. My parents knew I wanted to be like everyone else and have experiences like other kids – and I did have them – but they would not be at the cost of forsaking our culture and heritage. My parents wanted me to be proud of who I was and where I came from. The best gift they gave me was a greater sense of self. Building that confidence, having pride in who I am and where I come from, absolutely permeates the work I do and what I have to say.
I definitely feel compelled to tell authentic stories in every project I work on, but especially when it comes to sharing what the second-generation experience is all about. Often our stories are told by people who have not lived our experience, and you can feel that something is lacking. It’s palpable. I look forward to chronicling my second-generation desi experiences in a multitude of ways in the future… whether someone gives me the opportunity or I create it myself.
TTM: What are some of the TV shows with desi characters you’ve seen that stood out to you, either in a good or bad way? Being a writer, do you immediately think about what must have gone on in the writer’s room while making a particular scene or episode?
Baidwan: I loved Mindy Kaling in “The Mindy Project” and Aziz Ansari in “Parks and Recreation” and “Master of None”. I think Kumail Nanjiani is fantastic in “Silicon Valley”. Jameela Jamil and Tiya Sircar are hilarious in “The Good Place”, which is one of my favorite shows on television, it’s so smart, and has lots of heart and humor. I love seeing Kal Penn on “Designated Survivor” as the White House Press Secretary (Kal also had a great role in “House”, created by David Shore), and Priyanka Chopra being a badass FBI agent on “Quantico”. All of these wonderful roles showcase these actors as part of the normal fabric of society. They are not stereotypes or tokens. Representation matters.
Growing up, television was my babysitter. When I would come home from school the TV would immediately go on and I would watch anything and everything until I heard the garage door open. And even though I work as a television writer now, I like to disengage from the real world and enjoy my favorite shows like everyone else. I have no need or desire to dissect what may or may not have happened in that show’s writers’ room while I’m watching the show. I have lots of friends who write on shows I adore, but I don’t want any spoilers. I want to be shocked, amused and/or heartbroken with the rest of America. Although, if there is some amazing visual or stunt or location, I do wonder how much that cost to produce.
TTM: What are some of your upcoming projects you’re excited about, including “The Good Doctor,” which snagged a well-deserved early renewal for season 2.
Baidwan: Right now, I’m excited to be gearing up to head into the writers’ room for season 2 of “The Good Doctor”. As for my other future project, my lips are sealed.