Spoiler alert! Do not proceed if you have not watched the Bull season 5 premiere.
As COVID-19 seeps into scripted TV, CBS' legal procedural, Bull, took an ephemeral approach when it came to incorporating the pandemic into its DNA on Monday's season 5 premiere. As Dr. Jason Bull (Michael Weatherly) struggled to adapt to new safety protocols and guidelines in the New York City court system that largely diminished his effectiveness as an expert jury consultant, he came eerily close to giving up. But in the final minutes of the cheekily titled "My Corona," the entire episode was revealed to be a dream in Bull's mind.
Though Bull never distinctly said its eponymous character contracted coronavirus -- putting him out of commission for five days -- showrunner and executive producer Glenn Gordon Caron confirmed as much to ET, explaining that the vagueness of Bull's illness was left intentionally open-ended. Having Bull endure COVID, he said, served as a shift in priorities that dramatically shifts his approach in his work and his perspective on his life, which colors the rest of the season. "It was a mechanism or an excuse, I suppose, to be able to explore his inner thoughts and his inner psyche and his sense of panic about what was going on around him."
ET spoke with Caron about why he decided to have Bull get COVID, the decision behind having most of the episode take place as a dream and breaking the fourth wall in the final musical sequence.
ET: What was the benefit of incorporating the pandemic into the characters' lives? What did you find interesting to explore as a result of COVID-19?
Glenn Gordon Caron: So much of our show is built around Bull himself and his frame of mind. And the pandemic, certainly when it started, the epicenter was in New York City, which is where our show is set. We, like everyone else, or like many other people in the country, on March 13th were basically told, "Don't come back to work for a little bit." We stopped filming at episode 20 last year and I was under the naïve impression that, "Oh boy, OK, this will last about six weeks and then we'll get back to it." As it became clear that it was going to have a much more monumental effect on us, that is to say everyone in the country, [the writers] were in California, the shooting company was in New York, our viewers are everywhere in between, I thought, "What better way to sort of start the season than to get a sense of his state of mind?" The touchpoints that I think most of us experience as we try to wrap our brain around the fact that things were not going to be the same for a long while. Things we had taken for granted -- the freedom to go outside, the freedom to shake somebody's hand and talk to somebody, those were things we were going to have to put aside. It felt like a logical place to start. Also, frankly, I was having conversations with Michael Weatherly over the phone and he'd say, "How are you doing?" And I'd go, "How are you doing?" And we would check in with each other. It was clear to me that the things I was thinking about were things he was thinking about and lots of people were thinking about, which is to say, "Is my life the same on the other side of this?"
Even though it ends up being Bull's dream, we do see him struggling to adapt to this new reality and keeping his company afloat. How much does this insight into how he's sifting navigating the pandemic shift his approach on how he goes about his business?
It's clear in the episode that it's a dream. But the characters put a great deal of value, which by extension, means he puts a great deal of value, since he's dreaming it all. And the fact that he's very loyal to them. He pays them through the pandemic when clearly, it might be to his personal benefit not to do that. He takes a case he doesn't completely believe in so he can keep the place afloat. He really, really tries to keep the old order together, which is what all of us were trying to figure out how to do. Can I keep my job? Can I provide for my family? Those are the universal questions that a lot of people confronted during this period. What happens when my child doesn't go to school? Will I be able to go to work? All those sorts of things are the things that were flying through everybody's mind. The big change, or the big surprise -- hopefully I hope it works, I hope it lands -- is that the things that mean the most to him, the things that have the most value are the honesty of the people around him and that's manifested when he goes to that café to talk to that juror and he discovers that juror is [Izzy] the mother of his child, his ex-wife. She basically says to him, "You're not extinct. You may not have the same job. You may not have the same life. But if you have people who count on you and people you count on, if you have family, you endure," which to me is the big lesson in all of this. We're still here, most of us, and we endure.
In the final scene, Bull wakes up after being out for five days. The show never explicitly says he has COVID, but can you confirm that he does?
Yeah, my intention was that he had COVID. But also at the same time, I didn't put it in bright lights because hopefully, seven years from now when they rerun the show on Channel 770, it still means something. But yes, COVID.
Many scripted shows are incorporating the pandemic into their storylines and it's always a conversation whether a main character gets it or not. What was your intention in having Bull get coronavirus?
Honestly, it was a mechanism or an excuse, I suppose, to be able to explore his inner thoughts and his inner psyche and his sense of panic about what was going on around him. If I'm being completely honest with you, in March, even April, as we were starting to plan the next season, I was asked the question, "Are you going to incorporate COVID?" And my answer at that point was, "No, I think we're just going to ignore it. Because certainly, by the time the show comes back it'll be gone. And I don't know how to do courtroom drama when there's COVID, when people can't assemble." But the reality overtook me, which is to say COVID wasn't going away -- not using the timetable I set out, anyway. But justice and trials and lawyers and juries and all of that, they still went on. So I had to say to myself, "How would this proceed? What kind of show do we do in a world where you can't have 12 jurors sitting shoulder to shoulder in a box without masks on looking at witnesses?" Frankly, that's when I started to panic. When Bull is lying in bed talking to his ex-wife and saying, "Oh my God, I think I got to give up my place," that was the corollary to that moment. I'm like, "Wait a second, I'm not sure I know how to do this. How do we do a courtroom drama in the middle of a pandemic?" And you start to wonder about the efficacy of what you're doing. So it sort of grew out of this extended internal monologue I was having with myself. And you'll see in the second episode -- which isn't a dream, we don't do a dream every week -- that the courts are adapting. There are processes. They're different. They don't always make life easy for Bull and for the people at TAC [Trial Analysis Corporation], but they exist.
You also break the fourth wall at the very end of the episode, where we see the stages getting broken down and the various sets and production trailers, as members of the cast sing The Rascals' "How Can I Be Sure." Then it ends on Michael Weatherly saying to camera, "It's great to be back. We missed you guys." Why did you want to end the premiere that way?
I think we all collectively -- because it takes about 200 people to make one of these things -- felt a sense of relief that we were going back to work because we didn't work for a very long time. I think there was a sense of relief. At the same time, there was a sense of relief that we didn't lose anybody. There were people in the crew and certainly people on the cast who lost friends or family members. But we didn't lose anyone who's part of our [production]. And so, to me, the ending was sort of an acknowledgement of reaching outside the television show or the computer or however you watch the show and saying, "God, we're so happy that we're able to do this for you. This gives us such pleasure and there was a moment when we felt we might never be able to do it again." And that was very heartfelt. I felt it was necessary for us to acknowledge that, to say that. And when I introduced it as an idea with the cast, they were totally on board. Likewise, when I called Michael and said, "Listen, I think you're going to spend a lot of this episode lip-syncing," he completely got it, you know? It's not an easy conversation to call somebody who's an amazing a singer as Christopher Jackson and say, "Listen. Good news, you have a musical number. Bad news, you're lip-syncing somebody else's song." But he was great. He said, "No, I totally get it, man." The truth is everybody had a lot of fun with that. I'm very proud of it. I'm curious to see how the world reacts to it, but that was really what the ending was about. It was a way of us saying to our audience, "We love you, we miss you. That was a close one, but we're still here."
What can we look forward to in the next couple of episodes?
We pick up a lot of story strands that were left unfinished last season. One that comes immediately to mind is Marissa's divorce from her husband. And one of the other ones that comes to mind is it's revealed in the episode Chunk becomes a full-fledged lawyer, so he joins the firm as a lawyer. There are some exciting and interesting surprises for Benny, some big developments for Danny and for Taylor. Everybody gets their complication in life and we deal with all of them. But obviously, the main part of the show is the business of TAC, the business of going into court and using Dr. Bull's extraordinary understanding of human behavior to try and wrest every advantage they can to their clients.
Bullairs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CBS. For more on the procedural, watch the video below.