Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday, on a Wednesday! This week, we’re finally starting the best of Scrubs (2001-2008, NBC; 2008-2010, ABC), which is currently available on DVD and Hulu.
Scrubs stars ZACH BRAFF as J.D., SARAH CHALKE as Elliot Reid, DONALD FAISON as Christopher Turk, JUDY REYES as Carla Espinosa, JOHN C. MCGINLEY as Perry Cox, KEN JENKINS as Bob Kelso, and NEIL FLYNN as The Janitor.
During the 1990s, single-camera sitcoms were still largely a niche alternative to the dominant multi-cam standard. As we just saw, Malcolm In The Middle was one of the first mainstream endeavors in a while to argue that this rival format could be applied to an otherwise traditional domestic comedy. I consider Scrubs to be a sort of mirror to Malcolm, reintroducing the mainstream viability of the single-cam, but now for a traditional workplace comedy. Okay, perhaps the hospital setting puts Scrubs in a very specific subgenre of the workplace comedy, as medi-coms are special — several prior iterations had been shot without an audience and with the single-camera setup. But none had quite taken advantage of the opportunities provided by this setup as a deliberate contrast to the more theatrical multi-cam aesthetic… that is, until Scrubs, which proved the point by bolstering its comedy with voice-over narration, imaginative cutaways, and quick-cut gags. In fact, Scrubs is even wackier and faster paced than Malcolm, with a unique, rebellious tone also informing a large part of its appeal and suggesting this production setup as central to why… Of course, the hospital setting also invites serious subject matter as well, with a heavier ethos stemming from the life-and-death stakes facing many of the weekly guests. And just like a, say, M*A*S*H (a medical half hour set in wartime), Scrubs not only looks like a drama via its single-cam framing, it also occasionally resembles one too via its stories and storytelling: looking and acting like something other than a sitcom. To wit, there are many Scrubs episodes that exist as primary evidence for the larger, macro point I’ve made about the sitcom within the 21st century: this genre has slowly moved away from its own individual tropes in order to embrace stylistic markers more associated with other forms — in particular, dramatic programming reminiscent of the “prestigious” fare seen on cable, and eventually, streaming.
However, despite the fact that many of this show’s most popular episodes are indeed more dramatic in nature — and often not in a way that’s truly character or relationship-driven, but instead due to the simple jeopardy inherent to the setting, which therefore any hospital series could provide — Scrubs is usually, and I’d say fundamentally, a lighthearted half hour prioritizing laughter as its raison d’être, only giving imbalanced deference to drama in a handful of entries that standout because of their different intentions. In other words, Scrubs is definitely a comedy — even more so than the aforementioned M*A*S*H. And I say this both because of this show’s whimsical use of fantasy cutaway gags that are much more at home in the sitcom than anything else, and also because I’m comparing it to other works, specifically those by creator and head writer Bill Lawrence, whose later efforts have really gone a long way in blurring distinctions between the genres. Although his first created endeavor was the traditional workplace multi-cam Spin City, the 2010s and 2020s — in shows like Ted Lasso and Shrinking — have seen him developing a style that’s actively pushed aside humor by favoring other elements: warmth, sentiment, and sometimes outright drama. Honestly, I’m not the biggest fan of Lawrence as an auteur, for I think he indulges the societal bias that drama is nobler, and while his stuff can be very funny, particularly on Scrubs — which is easily his best contribution to the sitcom art — I see signs of his future preferences here: warmth, sentiment, and sometimes outright drama. Fortunately, I reiterate, Scrubs is definitely comedic by Lawrence’s standards… and, frankly, it had to be, as this series was quite mainstream, initially airing in NBC’s Must See TV-B slate (Tuesday), before spending most of its next two seasons on Thursdays by two multi-cam titans, Friends and Will & Grace, both ambassadors for the genre’s turn-of-the-century sensibility, which, in essence, can be described as “big-laugh rom-coms.” And with a forced affiliation to MSTV’s hits, Scrubs had to emphasize its similarities, just as much as its differences.
So, Scrubs leans into the unique possibilities allowed by its single-cam setup but also has to keep a fostered rapport with the traits of its era’s most popular sitcoms — and early on, that means not abandoning the familiarity of its neighboring live audience multi-cams, and specifically, the laughter that such series pursue. But how does this sitcom stand in terms of its sitcommery? Well, its pilot is terrific from top to bottom, as the show’s tone, its imaginative cutaways, and its leading characters are all well-defined and beautifully communicated as seminal aspects of the series’ identity, its situation. However, I think some of the leads actually become vaguer and less precise as time goes on — I’m primarily referring to Elliot, who starts with a clear perspective (competitive and brash) and clear relational dynamics with the others before turning into a somewhat nebulously rendered bumbler after the first year or so, little more than the inevitable love interest for the centralized J.D. Also, I wish the show did a better job developing and letting us learn more about Turk, who sort of gets defined at first as “J.D. but a surgeon and in a serious relationship” — details that paint him as slightly more of a grownup, but in a way where the two can otherwise exist within the same stories. This is not a big critique though — it makes sense that they’re so much alike, for they’re friends and their friendship is the show’s emotional core, with Zach Braff and Donald Faison revealing some appreciated dexterity in navigating Scrubs’ penchant for veering between cartoonish comedy and warmth-bordering-on-sentiment. The latter is a tonal conceit that’s never a true substitute for humor but nevertheless is a key element of the Bill Lawrence experience and thus a key part of this series’ DNA — something we expect to see it exhibit, and I’m okay with it exhibiting, as long as there are still laughs, and other facets of the situation — like its characters — remain well-used in the process.
To that point, while everyone else is funny (Kelso, Carla, the Janitor) and they join the guys in staying solidly rendered for the majority of the run, Scrubs is very much an idea-led sitcom. Like most hospital series, it exhausts patient-of-the-week plots, which can be dramatic or comedic. Either way, it’s largely dependent on the strength of its episodic notions. Medical cases naturally work best when there’s a real tie to the leading characters, but merely having the right ideas — something comical or compelling — is most of the battle. Additionally, the show confirms its idea-led bent with its silly tone and identity-rooted use of quick cutaway jokes that mostly arise from J.D.’s imagination. That is, in taking advantage of the single-cam’s ability to disrupt the Aristotelian Unities for the sake of a gag, Scrubs makes itself even more reliant on having funny notions — jokes of various sizes that, at their finest, should stem from some aspect of the characters, but again, require an underlying humorous value first and foremost. In its earliest seasons, Scrubs’ best episodes are stuffed with hysterical and creative asides — permanent reminders of the show’s unique sense of humor and the stylistic quirks that differentiate it from other sitcoms of its day. Later on, these gimmicks — and yes, though identity-corroborating, they are indeed gimmicks — grow to become the size of full episodes, with more individual half hours hinged on overarching stunts: a musical, a Wizard Of Oz homage, a multi-cam parody, etc. As always, the series’ comic inventiveness with these gimmicks and gags is paramount to its excellence. And interestingly, the show’s “comic inventiveness” is actually strongest during the middle of its life — specifically Seasons Four and Five, which I would call the series’ extended peak, with both years evidencing different sides of Lawrence’s evolving brand: one is more comedic, the other more sentimental. Now, as regular readers of this blog know, a sitcom peak usually occurs at the intersection of novelty (of premise) and knowingness (of character).
Scrubs is a bit special because its understanding of character is most laudable early on, when everyone (including Elliot) is well-defined. This diminishes but is stable by Season Three and remains solid for the rest of the run, while the freshness of the premise, which is usually hard to play into after a few years, actually maintains for longer — and, heck, becomes stronger as the show accentuates its comedy with more idea-based creativity, another vital part of its makeup. This may suggest that Scrubs is never perfect, for novelty and knowingness don’t intersect at their own peaks. However, since the show is idea-led, maximizing our enjoyment means giving the edge to what the series does best — ideas. And we can do so because during said peak, Four and Five, the character work remains fairly supportive as well (especially in Four, which is the funnier of the two). As for the premise’s novelty, Scrubs runs out of good medical/workplace stories at the end of Six — mostly because the show thought it was ending and thus gets fixated on offering bigger, heightened episodes designed to give closure to the world and its characters, including the central rom-com coupling. Once the show has to slow down, or negate, its leads’ endgame evolutions upon a surprise renewal, it becomes (as we saw with Friends) tough for the storytelling to ever again feel credible. Seven struggles to go back to “normal” and Eight labors to ramp things up again — a difficult task once momentum has been disrupted. And then there’s Nine — the Mayberry R.F.D. to the first eight years’ Andy Griffith, for the star is phased out alongside a combination of old and new leads that create an emotional unevenness that’s not set up for success… But we’re far away from Nine; Season One is up first — and a very fine debut. The characters are well established, the premise is novel, and while the show will really boost its tonal confidence around Three, it’s already funny and imaginative. Truthfully, I don’t love Scrubs as much as the other early 2000s multi-cams on our docket — the others being Malcolm, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Arrested Development — but it’s grown on me, and considering that it previews some of the genre’s recent evolutions, it’s certainly worth this blog’s critical eye.
01) Episode 1: “My First Day” (Aired: 10/02/01)
J.D., Turk, and Elliot start working at Sacred Heart.
Written by Bill Lawrence | Directed by Adam Bernstein
As noted above, Scrubs has a strong pilot that smartly defines all its leading characters while hinting at the future course of their relationships — both in terms of the romantic couplings (Elliot is never more specifically, comedically rendered), and also for the dynamics within the hospital, with, for instance, Dr. Cox being the “bad guy” who’s actually good, and Dr. Kelso being the “good guy” who’s actually bad. Additionally, the series’ imaginative, whimsical nature is well-established, via a bevy of unique, fantastical gags that venerate this sitcom’s use of its single-camera format as an aid to its storytelling. I wish every entry was as focused, funny, and identity-revealing, but the characters become a little vaguer over time, and Bill Lawrence’s tonal stylings dilute the big-laugh comedy that Scrubs’ premiere proves is very possible. Since I like no other half hour on this list better, I have chosen it as my MVE (Most Valuable Episode) — it’s the sample from Season One that most makes me feel like Scrubs is truly worthy of celebration.
02) Episode 2: “My Mentor” (Aired: 10/04/01)
J.D. tries to bond with Dr. Cox, while Turk pursues Carla.
Written by Bill Lawrence | Directed by Adam Bernstein
Scrubs‘ sophomore outing, also by Lawrence, really takes its time to explore some of the series’ seminal relationships — namely, J.D.’s bond with his mentor, Dr. Cox, along with the emerging friendship between Carla and Elliot (who is still rough-around-the-edges in a definable way that’ll be diluted by Season Two), and the romance between Carla and Turk, a huge part of the series’ situation — something that helps otherwise distinguish how J.D. and Turk can be used in story. Thus, this is a key expansion of the show’s sense of self, utilizing the regulars and their developing bonds for comic plot. It is a perfect example of a post-pilot script.
03) Episode 4: “My Old Lady” (Aired: 10/16/01)
The interns face death for the first time on the job.
Written by Matt Tarses | Directed by Marc Buckland
One of the most popular entries from this first season, “My Old Lady” features the interns dealing with life-and-death scenarios — a staple of this series’ situation that’s guaranteed by the hospital setting. Again, if there’s no real character-based stake, I’m not impressed by scripts that deploy generic any-medical-series jeopardy to create its narrative beats. However, what I like about this installment is that it occurs early enough in the run to be novel for the leads, and specifically J.D. (here working with a patient played by Kathryn Joosten), who is in his first year at Sacred Heart, rendering this an important moment in his development. Also, it’s vital in the series’ development too — it’s its first foray into the kind of seriousness that hopes to balance emotion and even drama with laugh-out-loud comedy (but can occasionally overtake it).
04) Episode 5: “My Two Dads” (Aired: 10/23/01)
J.D. is caught between Dr. Cox and Dr. Kelso.
Written by Neil Goldman & Garrett Donovan | Directed by Craig Zisk
In these early outings, Scrubs is still exploring the relational dynamics between its leads, and this excursion continues to expand upon J.D.’s specific rapports with both Dr. Cox and Dr. Kelso, both of whom are figures of authority that J.D. could potentially follow, even though they’re often at odds (and juxtaposed in story by the series itself — as the pilot already established). This is just another example of the first season reiterating components of its identity to the audience, but there’s some fun comedy in the subplots as well — particularly with Elliot — and I also enjoy Turk, Carla, and the butt pen. (Louie Anderson has a cameo as himself.)
05) Episode 6: “My Bad” (Aired: 10/30/01)
J.D. sleeps with Dr. Cox’s ex-wife.
Written by Gabrielle Allan | Directed by Marc Buckland
Christa Miller, wife of creator Bill Lawrence and then-regular on The Drew Carey Show (which she left to dedicate her time to Scrubs), debuts in this offering as the recurring Jordan, Dr. Cox’s ex-wife. This is a role that allows her a chance to be funnier, not because Scrubs’ writing is any more comedic than Drew Carey’s, but because this character has an attitude that’s a little more specific, giving her an acidity that, frankly, makes it easier for her to both get jokes and earn easy laughs. She’s a definite boon to the ensemble, for she’s a natural source of conflict that also adds depth to other leads, particularly Dr. Cox. Accordingly, her first installment is both a win for the season, but more importantly, the show at large. (Jimmie Walker has a cameo as himself.)
06) Episode 14: “My Drug Buddy” (Aired: 01/22/02)
J.D. is caught between Elliot and his new girlfriend over a patient.
Written by Matt Tarses | Directed by Michael Spiller
Although this episode is mostly about ridding J.D. of his newfound relationship with the woman he met in the MRI machine (Elizabeth Bogush) — and setting up his first official tryst with Elliot, discussed below — the narrative machinations of this half hour really come second to its big comedy (which is very grand, relative to the series’ baseline). Particularly fun are the scenes at the urinal between Dr. Cox and Turk — they’ve got a lot of laughs and, again, even though they’re used to set up the running idea that Cox likes Carla, they’re worth the price of admission, rendering this one of the most memorable outings of the season.
07) Episode 15: “My Bed Banter & Beyond” (Aired: 02/05/02)
J.D. and Elliot can’t sustain their new relationship.
Written by Gabrielle Allan | Directed by Lawrence Trilling
Scrubs’ affiliation with NBC’s Must See TV-B lineup is displayed in this Sweeps excursion that indulges the inevitable pairing of J.D. and Elliot, whose more-off-than-on romance sometimes seems like a mandated part of its situation, given that so many series, particularly from NBC, were then steeped in Friends-ian rom-com trappings. However, putting J.D. with Elliot juxtaposes their characterizations — he’s especially goofy with her, and she’s a little harsher — so I like when they’re together in story, even when not explicitly romantic. In fact, one way Scrubs reveals its uniqueness is by NOT having them together as a formal couple for long stretches — it’s typically a brief encounter. This can feel manipulative (i.e., timed for Sweeps, like other MSTV stunts), but it’s also an interesting use of their characters, and it’s only a problem at the series’ long-delayed end, when they do become an endgame pair, per the pilot’s forecast but in apparent rejection of the casualness otherwise smartly seen in character-defining entries like these.
08) Episode 19: “My Old Man” (Aired: 04/09/02)
The interns’ parents come for a visit.
Written by Matt Tarses | Directed by Adam Bernstein
Designed as a gimmick — featuring guest appearances by the interns’ parents — this is an excuse for the freshman series to employ some stunt casting (again, in accordance with its identity as an NBC MSTV-B sitcom from the early 2000s). And yet, by meeting members of the leads’ families, we’re also learning more about them — both their backstories and their psychologies. Thus, this is a stunt that nevertheless has natural value for character — allowing it to stand out both in terms of its pomp and its circumstance. Sitcom vets John Ritter, Hattie Winston, and Markie Post guest, along with Lane Davies and R. Lee Ermey.
09) Episode 22: “My Occurrence” (Aired: 05/07/02)
Dr. Cox’s brother-in-law is admitted as a patient.
Written by Bill Lawrence | Directed by Lawrence Trilling
Brendan Fraser makes his first appearance in this outing as Jordan’s brother and Dr. Cox’s best friend, an affable guy who also bonds with J.D. His medical diagnosis at the end of this half hour spills over into the next, more serious segment, and culminates in a very popular third season entry about which I personally have complicated thoughts — finding it an example of Scrubs giving episodic precedence to drama over comedy when determining its desired means of catharsis. However, it is indicative of a vital and differentiating part of Scrubs’ identity and appeal, so this offering, which is actually amusing — I also love the continuity of reintroducing Nicole Sullivan’s Jill, who’ll continue to recur — plays into this series’ developing modus operandi and is reflective of my larger commentary regarding Scrubs’ place within the genre.
10) Episode 24: “My Last Day” (Aired: 05/21/02)
Secrets come out on the last day of J.D.’s first year at Sacred Heart.
Written by Gabrielle Allan & Mike Schwartz | Directed by Michael Spiller
Season One ends with a tight, thematically satisfying finale that nicely bookends the tight, thematically satisfying premiere. But if the pilot was tops for how it set up these characters and established this show’s comedic identity, its first finale is a testament to the year’s emerging idea-led storytelling, as all the narrative threads from this collection reach a crescendo in a climactic scene where Jordan outs everybody’s secrets, suggesting a possible reset of all the relationships going into Two. This is exciting because it looks like we’ll be exploring the regulars in new, fresh ways, and in that regard, Scrubs concludes its first season with its leads in fine shape and a sustained novelty that implies a capacity for much future story. Success!
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “My Nickname,” a great showing for the J.D. and Carla relationship that also introduces Jill, along with “My Fifteen Minutes,” a segment with a lot of fun, solid ideas for character, and “My Hero,” this year’s second entry with Brendan Fraser as Ben. I’ll also take this space to cite “My Best Friend’s Mistake,” another early relationship-building outing, “My Day Off,” an inevitable hospital story where a lead becomes a patient, “My Own Personal Jesus,” an agreeable Christmas-themed offering, “My Blind Date,” which is focused on introducing some romantic arcs for the characters, and “My Tuscaloosa Heart,” which expands our understanding of Dr. Kelso.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Scrubs goes to…
“My First Day”
Come back next week for Season Two and a new Wildcard Wednesday!