[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers from “The Good Doctor” Season 2, Episode 1, “Hello” — the premiere episode.]
“The Good Doctor” is back for another season of medical anomalies, cutting-edge procedures, hospital politics, and uplifting storylines. As the anti-“House,” the series is unapologetically sentimental and heartwarming thanks to its lead. Seen through the lens of Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore), a doctor with autism and savant syndrome, everyday human interactions become more fraught, and in turn shine a light on the viewers’ own perceptions of the world.
In short order, the series presses reset on Shaun’s world by removing his mentor Dr. Aaron Glassman (Richard Schiff) as head of the San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital and installing the much more antagonistic and ambitious former chief of surgery Dr. Marcus Andrews (Hill Harper) in his place. This challenges Shaun to not only navigate his job without the protection of his mentor but also learn to be the moral support for Glassman while he gets treated for his recently diagnosed brain cancer.
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The show also continues to double down on heart — literally and figuratively — with its two medical cases of the week. The first is concerned with a much-publicized operation in which a patient has a backup heart installed (which will effectively make her a dual-hearted person much like the Timelords on “Doctor Who,” but without the regeneration abilities), while the second allows Shaun to have one of his brainwaves (thanks to physics) and realize that a troubled homeless man isn’t schizophrenic, but has a brain tumor that caused him to act erratically and leave his wife and daughter behind.
In trying to convince the man known as Harry (Raphael Sbarge) — but whose real name is found on his ID in the homeless encampment — to trust them and have the operation, Shaun says, “I have a neurological condition; I will always have it. You have a neurological condition too, but yours can be cured; you just need some surgery and you can be Edward Austin Thomas again.”
It’s moments like these that simultaneously plague and empower “The Good Doctor.” On one hand, such incidents — like Shaun’s speech from the pilot about the day his brother went to heaven — can come off as too on-the-nose and ruthlessly mawkish, as if they’re heavy-handedly designed to tug at heartstrings. On the other hand, because viewers have gotten to know and embrace the character, they can also accept this side of him — his ability to lay out his point of view in a raw and unselfconscious way. To Shaun, he is being matter-of-fact, but to those watching who normally shield themselves in everyday interactions, Shaun’s candid nature is refreshing, vulnerable, and brave.
Even though it’s inspiring, it’s also squirm-inducing; it’s just not clear how anyone is expected to react. No wonder Harry, aka Edward, says, “You’re not a doctor are you?” These are the moments when “The Good Doctor” can lose the audience or convert them, depending on one’s ability to lean into the cringe factor and embrace the heart.
Both operations come off beautifully, and the other hospital staff make strides in their own growth as well, including Dr. Jared Kalu (Chuku Modu), who is leaving for a hospital in Denver. The combination of wrapped-up procedural elements and feel-good emotional moments make for a quietly satisfying episode.
That Surprise Coda
“The Good Doctor” does one better, however, in its last moments by giving fans an extra reason to be excited this season. As Shaun returns home, he’s greeted by a familiar, smiling face: Lea (Paige Spara). The last time his former neighbor appeared, she had taken Shaun on an unforgettable road trip in which he experienced many firsts, including his first drink of alcohol and first kiss. The life-altering trip also made its mark on her, and she decided to move back to her hometown to pursue her dream of refurbishing classic cars full time.
But now she’s back with enough bags to hint she may intend to bunk with him, at least for a bit. The two characters have always had strong chemistry, and even if she’s back to be his aide, that would be in itself good news. After all, it’s the one significant and positive relationship seen outside of work. And in a way, after that discussion of how his brother looked out for him and made sure to give him fun experiences, it’s easy to see how Lea has also filled this role.
Then again, it’s also likely she’s back to continue that whiff of romance the two shared. At the end of last season, “The Good Doctor” showrunner David Shore confirmed Lea would return and she’d probably be involved with Shaun for his first romantic relationship.
“Lea’s going to be back. I can tell you that,” Shore said at the time. “She’s fantastic. She has a spark and an energy that is really wonderful to watch. If you place him in a ‘relationship’ with any woman, people want that for him. We want him to find a relationship. We want him to find love. It’s got to be with the right woman. It’s got to be with the right person who understands him and accepts him and for sure doesn’t pity him, recognizes all that he is and we got that from Lea almost straight away, I think.”
Of course, the other telling detail is the episode’s title “Hello.” Earlier in the episode, Dr. Claire Browne (Antonia Thomas) asks Shaun to say hello to Jared before he leaves the hospital. It’s her way of expressing that she regrets they ended their romance. When Shaun greets Lea with his own “hello,” this is a direct echo of Claire’s gesture and therefore carries with it romantic implications.
The appeal of romance in media is not anything new, and appears to be in demand more than ever judging by the splash made by “Crazy Rich Asians” and the enduring success of Hallmark movies. “The Good Doctor” has made strides in eliminating misconceptions about people on the spectrum, and its treatment of romance will add to other recent portrayals of characters with autism who’ve found love, including Dean (Harold Perrineau) on TNT’s “Claws” and Sam (Keir Gilchrist) on Netflix’s “Atypical.”
And this may seem silly to point out, but despite some challenges with interactions and expressions, people with autism are capable and desirous of love. And in Shaun’s case, he is a character who is worthy of it. Determined, moral, and good-hearted, he’s aspirational and lovable. One does not need to have autism to understand what it is to feel marginalized or misunderstood. And giving Shaun romance also gives hope to anyone else who identifies with being a misfit or on the outside.
Shaun and Lea’s relationship will probably not go from zero to 60 very quickly. In fact, it’s safe to expect many cautious steps within episodes offering no romance altogether. This is a very different show from “Grey’s Anatomy” after all. Nevertheless, however their relationship advances — whether it’s platonically, romantically, or otherwise — it should make for interesting TV. In the very least, here’s hoping that means Shaun’s replacement neighbor, that horrifying Kenny (Chris D’elia), is out of the picture.
”The Good Doctor” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.