In The Good Doctor’s two-part Season 4 opener, the residents of St. Bonaventure Hospital are thrust onto the “Frontline” of the coronavirus pandemic.
Spanning a number of months, the episodes pick up early in 2020, when little was known about COVID-19, watching as the virus comes to meet San Jose with deadly force. “This episode of The Good Doctor is a made-up story about a real battle still being fought,” the opening title cards read. “Honor the heroes … many of whom have given their lives. Do your part. Wear a mask.”
Premiering tonight, “Frontline, Part 1” examines the exhaustion, stress and frustration that comes with working on the front lines of a pandemic. While Dr. Lim (Christina Chang) struggles to produce the COVID tests, PPE and other medical supplies needed to confront the health crisis, Dr. Glassman (Richard Schiff) is forced to work from home, due to his age and underlying medical conditions. Like his mentor Glassman, young autistic surgeon Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore) is galled by the unpredictability of the virus, for which there is not yet a vaccine, and his limited ability to help others in the face of it.
Another source of frustration for all major characters has to do with relationships and the contrasting ways in which they’re affected by the pandemic. On the one hand, there’s Glassman, who suffers from a little too much time at home with his wife, Debbie (Sheila Kelley). On the other, there are those suffering from too little connection during this time.
Dr. Andrews (Hill Harper) sleeps in the garage to avoid exposing his family to the virus, while Dr. Park (Will Yun Lee) temporarily moves in with Shaun to do the same. And while Shaun has finally secured a relationship with Lea (Paige Spara), he takes similar precautions, despairing over the fact that he can’t safely be in the same room with the woman he loves.
Then, there’s Drs. Lim and Browne (Antonia Thomas), who mourn the death of their shared colleague and love interest, Dr. Melendez (Nicholas Gonzalez), in the earthquake that ended Season 3.
Toward the end of “Part 1,” Dr. Reznick (Fiona Gubelmann) learns that she accidentally has been exposed to COVID-19, alongside nurse Deena Petringa (Karin Konoval). And following this cliffhanger revelation, the spirit of Melendez approaches Browne in the hospital, to assure her that — despite all evidence to the contrary — everything will be OK.
Produced by Sony Pictures Television and ABC Studios, in association with Shore Z Productions, 3AD, and Entermedia, The Good Doctor will be back for another 20-episode season this fall, despite the challenges imposed on production by COVID safety protocols. Below, showrunner/exec producer David Shore breaks down “Frontline, Part 1,” teasing developments to come in Shaun and Lea’s relationship, new roles for the residents of St. Bonaventure and new characters who will join them in Season 4.
DEADLINE: In March, The Good Doctor Season 3 closed with a two-part finale centered on a catastrophic earthquake. Around the same time, the real-life disaster of the coronavirus pandemic emerged, ushering in a new normal. At that point, you knew you’d have to change course in Season 4 and figure out a way to address the pandemic. But how challenging was it, as a writer, to make the leap from the season you’d originally envisioned to the one you would shoot?
DAVID SHORE: Luckily, I have nothing planned, so it’s easy to adjust. [Laughs] The truth is, this is just so overwhelming. The reality of events is so overwhelming that it just dictated that this is what we have to do.
So, I think the way we looked at it, to some extent. … This is not a hundred percent true, but I personally felt like life had been put on hold, like somebody pressed pause on the world. That was the best-case scenario. Worst-case scenario, you got sick, but for the rest of us, we’re just staying in and waiting — and that’s not the case for doctors. But still, in a very real sense, everything just got put on hold.
So all the stuff from the end of last year, none of it mattered. … You know, that’s not true. Somebody was dead. But there was stuff on our plate that we had to deal with. There was a reality in the world that these doctors had to deal with, and so we approached it from that point of view — that they’re carrying the weight of last year, but they can’t deal with it until everything else gets sorted out.
Now, that doesn’t mean that it’s not eating them up inside and churning away at them. But it does mean that they don’t have the luxury to take time and explore a new relationship or explore grief or explore moving to another city? None of that was available to them because real-world events dictated what they had to deal with right now.
DEADLINE: Obviously, the health crisis we’re facing is unprecedented. But have you ever faced a situation like this in your career? Prior to COVID-19, was there ever a real-world event so profound in its impact that you wrote it into a series?
SHORE: Not to the same extent. I assume if I was working on a show in 2001 that was set in New York, or something like that, it would have had to have acknowledged something, and there have obviously been real-world events that have been significant.
But certainly on this show, and most of the shows I do, I like to deal with personal stories. I like to deal with individual stories. I think they’re very relatable. The universal aspect of an individual story, and the universal aspect of individual struggles, that’s what I like to deal with. I don’t like to deal with politics and world events — and you know, politics and world events come home, but not like this did. This just changed how we’re living our lives. So, I can’t think of another time where I’ve done this kind of thing.
DEADLINE: The COVID-19 pandemic is an enormous event to tackle in just two episodes of television. How did you figure out what you wanted to explore or to say about it? It seems like the emphasis of your openers is on human connection and the different ways in which it’s been affected.
SHORE: Yes. Look, I’ve done a couple of medical shows. I’ve always prided myself on trying to make it as realistic as possible, but it’s never been about the medicine. It’s about the human beings affected by the medicine, and in this case, I think you’re a hundred percent right. So much of it is about separation, the frustration that leads to. I could go on and on, but it is very much about connection and the lack thereof during this time.
DEADLINE: While the pandemic absorbs the focus of Season 4’s first two episodes, there were a number of storylines from Season 3 that you were able to pull through, including Dr. Melendez’s death and its impact on his colleagues.
SHORE: Yeah. You know, we opened the whole thing with, “Hey, the future! It’s good, it’s bad, it’s indifferent — and then everything changed.” That was the teaser. [Lea told Shaun], “Yeah, I’m going to come back on Thursday. You’ll stay overnight on Saturday.” No, no. Nothing’s happening. Everything’s different than what you expected.
You know, the death of Melendez is dealt with and carries through, and the impact it has on Claire and on Lim, that is something I think is going to be very interesting. When one door closes, another door opens, and the door that’s opened here is the Claire and Lim relationship. We see a bit of that in this, and we will continue to see a lot of that.
And of course, we ended last season with Shaun and Lea embarking on a new love. So, we want to throw Shaun right into a relationship, and one of the advantages of the fact that the first episode takes place over months is, I never did want to just explore, “They’re dating!” We’ve done the dating stuff. Now, they’re in a relationship, and the differences and the challenges of that, the challenges of dealing with a mature relationship. … You know, it’s not about how you act on a date. It’s not about, “Will she kiss me?” It’s about all the things we all deal with in relationships, those challenges.
That gets put on the back burner a little bit, but we embrace the frustration that has. But as the stories go forward, it’s going to be very much about their relationship.
DEADLINE: Is there anything more you can say about the path their relationship will take?
SHORE: Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but they’re going to move in together fairly early, because we don’t want to deal with the dating aspect of it. We want to deal with, as I said, a mature relationship, and the challenges of that, and the mistakes that we all make in relationships, and the wisdom that Shaun can bring, along with the misunderstandings, and the confusion he takes. As always, it’s not about the comedy of that, although it’s often quite amusing, watching Shaun’s take on that. But I think that always comes from Shaun’s unique perspective. And Shaun’s unique perspective always has value, so we enjoy that.
DEADLINE: Earlier this month, at New York Comic Con, you teased that Shaun will be graduating to a new role within the hospital, along with his fellow residents. Could you give us a sense of what this might mean for him?
SHORE: For better or worse, I’ve never wanted to just stand pat with Shaun. [Like], “Oh my gosh, can a person with autism be a surgeon?” Well, we answered that fairly quickly, that Shaun can be a surgeon. But I think this series is about finding new opportunities and new challenges for him, and seeing that those challenges are the same that we all experience. They just manifest a little differently, and he brings something unique to the table on it, in terms of challenges, but [also] in terms of wisdom.
So, Season 1 was: Can he be a surgeon? I’m oversimplifying the entire series, but Season 2 is about, can he be a supportive friend to a sick friend, when Glassman was sick? Season 3 is about, can he have a girlfriend? Season 4 is about, can he be in a relationship with Lea? But also, part of being a surgeon is teaching others. It’s not just about the mechanics of surgery; it’s about guiding the next generation, and that requires communication.
Communication and interpreting other people’s reactions and moods, et cetera, is not Shaun’s strong suit. So how will he navigate those waters?
DEADLINE: At the end of Season 3, Dr. Reznick realized that she’d no longer be able to work as a surgeon, due to the worsening of her rheumatoid arthritis. At this moment, then, it seems like she’s particularly in need of a new calling, or a new role within the hospital.
SHORE: Yeah. She’s still going to be very much part of our world, but in a bit of a different role. She was a true hero at the end of last year. She sacrificed her surgical career, in order to save somebody’s life, and we have to be true to that. So, we’re not going to pretend that didn’t happen. That happened, she’s paid a price, and we’ll see where she winds up.
DEADLINE: Dr. Park is still a major presence at St. Bonaventure at the start of Season 4, though he’d previously considered moving to Phoenix to be closer to his family. That being said, is the character here to stay?
SHORE: Yeah. Don’t worry, he’s not going away. He’s going to stick around, but as you’ve seen in the first two [episodes], his marriage is going to be over, and he’s going to have to lick his wounds.
But we’re exploring more. … And I don’t want to make this sound romantic, as I describe it, because I don’t intend it that way. But the Morgan and Park relationship, we’re going to have some fun with that.
DEADLINE: At the end of “Frontline, Part 1,” we see the spirit of Dr. Melendez return to the hospital to speak with Dr. Browne. Is the door open for his continued presence on the show? Or is this more of a short-term exploration?
SHORE: There definitely is a door for that to continue. [But] I do not want to overpromise that, because I don’t want people tuning in feeling burned because they don’t see him in a few episodes after that.
DEADLINE: Reportedly, Season 4 will introduce a number of new characters who will challenge Shaun and his peers in new ways. What can you tell us about them?
SHORE: We’ve got four first-year residents that are coming in. We’ve got more than that to begin with, but we’ve got four of them that are going to be sticking around for a little while, and we’ll see how Shaun and Morgan and Claire and Park deal with them.
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