Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our coverage on 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.
Most sitcoms reach their peak at the intersection of “novelty” and “knowingness” in their second or third seasons. But not Scrubs. As an idea-driven sitcom, this series’ ideas are better later — reaching new heights in Seasons Four and Five — in the sense that the show not only becomes funnier with its stories, but also steps more fully into its ethos, better resembling Bill Lawrence’s desired tonal concoction of warmth, sentiment, and sometimes drama, along with the series’ trademark fast-paced, wacky comedy. The character work also remains basically consistent up through Six, so even though the leads are probably best defined in Season One — and certainly best used in story that focuses on their depictions in relation to one another — there’s not enough of a handicap to the years that actually boast the best ideas. However, this leaves Two and Three, but particularly Two, somewhat stuck in the middle of these two separate poles — for it’s neither the best for character nor any other part of the series’ identity. Oh, there’s still exploration of the leads, but some of their definitions are already a little vaguer — specifically Elliot’s — and there’s been a dilution in the boldness of folks like Carla and Dr. Cox. What’s more, story is already becoming as much about its episodic hooks as the direct, evolving relationships of the regulars… And yet, if that makes this year sound unideal, there are a lot of good things about Two as well. In fact, while the use of character in story has declined from One, other aspects of the series’ design are being actively strengthened, as there’s more here with side players (like the Janitor, Jordan, and Todd), and the world as a whole feels more dynamic. Also, the show’s comic sensibility is rising, as Scrubs is growing especially kooky — not merely in its imaginative cutaways and fantasy bits, but in its leads’ simple, everyday interactions. Accordingly, Scrubs is becoming more Scrubs. This isn’t the best of what the series has to offer on any metric, but it’s a solid building year, and I like the list below — which seeks to spotlight the entries that best embody the entirety of the series’ situation.
01) Episode 25: “My Overkill” (Aired: 09/26/02)
Everyone is on edge after Jordan’s revelations.
Written by Bill Lawrence | Directed by Adam Bernstein
Season Two opens with everyone either mad at each other or awkward after Jordan’s revelations. This entry basically resets things back to the status quo, not shaking up the ensemble dynamics like we maybe would have expected. But it’s okay because this is an affable half hour that boldly evidences Scrubs’ developing tone, with an amusing musical opening and a sense of loose, uncomplicated joy that compensates for any dashed wishes we might have with regard to character or story. And as a sample of both the season and the series, this is a very good display of what the show is right now — easy, breezy. (Colin Hay appears — and sings!)
02) Episode 27: “My Case Study” (Aired: 10/10/02)
J.D. wants to compete in Dr. Kelso’s medical contest.
Written by Gabrielle Allan | Directed by Michael Spiller
This story capitalizes on established roles within the workplace, as Dr. Cox, who is essentially J.D.’s mentor, is chagrined when J.D. is eager to participate in Dr. Kelso’s crass case study competition. It’s a perfect use of the characters and their relationships, both in terms of the hospital and their personal bonds. Also, there are some solid laughs in the fringes, as Dr. Cox flirts with an elderly patient, and there’s another side story about Carla and Elliot’s friendship — a notion that seeks to bolster their rapport and derive comic conflict based on their differences (which are more obvious than defined). Maree Cheatham and Michael McDonald guest.
03) Episode 31: “My First Step” (Aired: 11/07/02)
Dr. Cox is attracted to a pharmaceutical representative.
Written by Mike Schwartz | Directed by Lawrence Trilling
Heather Locklear, a former cast member on Bill Lawrence’s Spin City, enjoys her first of two consecutive appearances here as a flirtatious pharmaceutical rep who has the hots for Dr. Cox. Now, the next entry makes clear that she’s really only around as a temporary complication to Cox’s reconciliation with Jordan, who is going to return pregnant, but prior to those somewhat ham-fisted narrative maneuverings (and I say ham-fisted because I appreciate Jordan but find this whole pregnancy story to be more contrived than character-driven), there’s some good, series-validating comedy, where John C. McGinley, in particular, shines. I also appreciate a restoration of the competitiveness between J.D. and the otherwise nondescript Elliot.
04) Episode 34: “My Monster” (Aired: 12/12/02)
J.D. has trouble separating his personal and professional lives.
Written by Angela Nissel | Directed by Gail Mancuso
There’s an overarching theme to this narratively important episode that I really enjoy, for it’s a notion that could apply to the whole series at large: the difficulty doctors (and nurses) have leaving their work at work, and not taking it with them into their personal lives. This is especially true for these regulars, given how enmeshed they are with each other both at the hospital and outside of it. But this script hangs a lantern on the idea as J.D. attempts to date a beautiful woman (Sarah Lancaster) and is haunted by visions of all the gross things he deals with at work. This problem extends to the other leads as well, culminating in a renewed tryst between J.D. and Elliot that launches a brief arc for a winter cliffhanger, continued below…
05) Episode 35: “My Sex Buddy” (Aired: 01/02/03)
J.D. and Elliot attempt to resume a casual relationship.
Written by Neil Goldman & Garrett Donovan | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Even though we know that J.D. and Elliot were designed to be romantically paired (per the rules of the MSTV Thursday berth into which Scrubs was slotted this year), I respect that the series avoids some predictable narrative trappings by keeping their dalliances brief and often casual. As I noted last week, this deliberate downplaying of their inevitability plays well until they’re formally paired near series’ end. But that’s a long time from now; here, it’s still exciting to see them together because their juxtaposition brings out heightened characterizations for them both, and frankly, I think this trilogy, which is self-conscious about its desire to keep them from becoming serious with each other, represents their dynamic, and the way Scrubs chooses to handle it, better than anything else — it’s fresh, it’s different, it’s fun.
06) Episode 36: “My New Old Friend” (Aired: 01/09/03)
J.D. tries to move on again from Elliot.
Written by Gabrielle Allan | Directed by Chris Koch
This year’s J.D. and Elliot hookup arc concludes in this offering, as the pair adjusts to the return of their status quo. Beyond that bit of relationship-focused continuity, this one is worthwhile because it’s the first appearance of Richard Kind (an alum of Bill Lawrence’s Spin City — following in the footsteps of Heather Locklear and Alan Ruck) as a recurring patient: a nervous hypochondriac. Additionally, this is just a fun, funny script that evokes Scrubs’ developing sense of humor, including the way it’s blending with other aspects of the Lawrence brand during this particular era. In short, it reflects the season’s sensibility well.
07) Episode 37: “My Philosophy” (Aired: 01/16/03)
Turk plans to propose to Carla.
Teleplay by Matt Tarses & Tim Hobert | Story by Bill Lawrence | Directed by Chris Koch
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “My Philosophy” is a well-liked excursion that banks some emotional appeal, particularly in its final moments, where an amenable patient, a singer (Jill Tracy), leads a musical fantasy sequence upon her death. As you know, I don’t like when sitcoms give preferential treatment to drama over comedy, especially when it’s not specific to the leads and their relationships. However, this is a major part of Scrubs’ identity, and because it’s still an episodic novelty for the show to indulge such gravitas, it stands out as more impactful than it would in later seasons. Also, note that the ending musical sequence is just a fantastical beat here — by Season Six, the gimmicks go from being quick cutaways to whole half-hour stunts, like an entire musical episode. I nevertheless love that forthcoming entry, but I think it reveals the ways in which the show becomes bigger — with its comedy, and its drama… As for its comedy, the rest of this half hour is very funny, thanks to Turk’s trouble with the ring he’s bought for Carla, to whom he proposes at the end — a major development in their relationship that also gives this outing some real character stakes.
08) Episode 39: “His Story” (Aired: 01/30/03)
Dr. Cox talks to a therapist, while Carla struggles to respond to Turk.
Written by Bonnie Schneider & Hadley Davis | Directed by Ken Whittingham
Dr. Cox takes over the narration for this offering — a gimmick so well-received that everybody, even the recurring players, would eventually get the chance to do the same over the next few years. This focus — as he speaks to a therapist (Eric Bogosian) — is unique and helps the segment stand out above the rest here in the collectively middling Two. But I actually enjoy “His Story” more for its subplots, as Elliot can’t fight her attraction to a male nurse (Ricky Schroder) — something that embarrasses her (in a display of character-suggesting prejudice) — and Carla finally accepts Turk’s proposal, setting up an anticipated change in their arc.
09) Episode 42: “My T.C.W.” (Aired: 03/20/03)
J.D. flirts with the wife of a coma patient.
Written by Bill Lawrence | Directed by Adam Bernstein
There’s a lot of fun ideas in this half hour, which delights in making life difficult for J.D. Not only is it the start of his arc dating the wife of a comatose (and soon to be deceased) patient, but “My T.C.W.” (short for “Tasty Coma Wife”) also delights in throwing at him a rumor about beastialty that began in the morning when he kissed their stuffed dog Rowdy, along with an accidental utterance of a racial slur. In piling on the misery, there’s plenty of comedy, all focused on the leading man. In fact, this is one of the most comedic entries here in Season Two, with a script credited to the series’ creator, Bill Lawrence — he really seems to “get” the J.D. character.
10) Episode 46: “My Dream Job” (Aired: 04/17/03)
J.D. and Turk are visited by their old college friend.
Written by Tim Hobert & Matt Tarses | Directed by Bill Lawrence
Season Two ends with another marker of the main characters’ growth, as the three primary residents near the conclusion of their second year at Sacred Heart. In this installment, J.D. and Turk are visited by an old college chum played by Ryan Reynolds. He’s a personified reminder of these two best friends’ shared history, which thus strengthens their bond by reiterating its depth, and he’s defined as a version of them, allowing the show to comment on the fact that they have grown up a bit, simply now that they have more responsibilities. And since J.D.’s maturation into full adulthood is his basic series-long arc, this is therefore an important stop along the way for the show and, specifically, his character. A great wrap to the season.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “My Lucky Day,” which has a fun subplot with the stuffed dog, “My Brother, My Keeper,” where both D.L. Hughley and Dick Van Dyke guest, “My Karma,” in which Jordan gives birth, “My Own Private Practice Guy,” which notably features a guesting Jay Mohr, “My Kingdom,” which puts J.D. and Turk at brief odds, “My Interpretation,” which boasts several amusing ideas, and “My Drama Queen,” which allows Elliot to have some insight regarding J.D. and his current love interest.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Scrubs goes to…
Come back next week for Season Three! And stay tuned for a new Wildcard Wednesday!