Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday, on a Wednesday! This week, we’re doubling up — to make up for previously bumped posts — and 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.
In Three, Scrubs continues to adopt more of the traits associated with its identity during its next two — and best — seasons, leaning more into its tonal blend of silly comedy with warmth, heart, and sometimes drama. However, the series’ sense of humor does not increase this year as much as its other attributes — unlike Four, which has a bigger comedic elevation (and indeed, I think Four and Five are bigger in every way). This is largely because of the season’s storytelling, which, as with Two, continues to shed an early focus on character and ensemble dynamics. Now, plots are a little more idea-led, and this year in particular, they’re more entrenched in the rom-com trappings affiliated with NBC’s then-dying turn-of-the-century Must See TV brand. That is, there are more romantic maneuverings in Three, primarily with J.D. and Elliot (individually), building up to the brief resumption of their relationship at season’s end. As discussed, I actually like when the two are paired in story (romantic or otherwise), and I do appreciate the series for being pretty casual about it. But the back-and-forth where they date recurring players, some of whom are better rendered than others, seldom makes for unique or situation-based ideas. Heck, weekly medical cases are often more premise-affirming than angsty relationship beats, where the character stakes are implied because it’s their personal lives… but, again, rarely specific enough to feel truly motivated, earned, or inspired by them exclusively. (This is especially true for Elliot, who is easily the least defined member of the core cast. Fortunately, J.D. has a bit better luck in Three, namely with Tara Reid’s Danni, who is better conceived, comedically and dramatically.) Accordingly, I don’t think this is a choice year for story… That said, Scrubs is getting closer to the peak sensibility we’ll see represented in Four and Five. In fact, while there’s better character stuff earlier, and bigger, more memorable episodes later, the series’ identity is refining. And the proof is in the pudding — this strong, persuasive list of favorites is the best yet.
01) Episode 47: “My Own American Girl” (Aired: 10/02/03)
J.D. struggles with a patient, while Elliot decides she needs a change.
Written by Bill Lawrence | Directed by Bill Lawrence
Series creator Bill Lawrence opens this season with a lighthearted half hour that simply presents Scrubs’ natural affability when it’s not leaning into extremes. In terms of story, it addresses the conflict between Dr. Cox and Dr. Kelso believably before resuming the status quo, while J.D. is at the center of a fun patient plot that’s more about the ensemble than any episodic gimmick, and the show seemingly acknowledges Elliot’s nebulous persona by deliberately giving her a makeover. Okay, it’s little more than an excuse to start her romantic arc for the season (and it was apparently mandated by execs looking to inject more sex appeal into the series), but I see it also as an attempt to find a characterization within insecurities related to her previous lack of concreteness, for this is a literal revamp. (Lee Arenberg guests.)
02) Episode 53: “My Fifteen Seconds” (Aired: 11/20/03)
J.D. begins seeing Jordan’s sister Danni.
Written by Mark Stegemann | Directed by Ken Whittingham
J.D.’s brief relationship with Danni (Tara Reid) is actually one of his best romantic arcs on the show, both because the actress brings a quirky sensibility to the character that suggests a characterization (particularly later when he can no longer stand her), and also because she’s Jordan’s sister, which ups the emotional stakes and helps tie J.D.’s personal and professional worlds, satisfying the situation. There’s probably no finer example here than this excursion, which I’m selecting as my pick for the year’s MVE (Most Valuable Episode), simply because I think it represents Season Three accurately but favorably, as Scrubs’ emerging tonal blend is also on display via the return of Nicole Sullivan’s Jill — a nice show of continuity — for a medical story that packs both humor and some heavier, dramatic sentiment. Additionally, I appreciate the big comedy in the subplot where Dr. Kelso is temporarily deaf — a good use of his broader character, with laughs arising from how the rest of the hospital views him… So, ultimately, in a season where extremes of style are only starting to become more pronounced, “My Fifteen Seconds,” which has it all, just seems like the best ambassador. (Erik Estrada appears as himself.)
03) Episode 54: “My Friend The Doctor” (Aired: 12/04/03)
Elliot feels like she’s falling behind her peers, while Dr. Cox hurts his back.
Written by Gabrielle Allan | Directed by Ken Whittingham
One of the things I like best about this installment is its narrative cohesion, for Turk’s success in surgery sparks both of the main story ideas, with Elliot trying to score a similar career triumph — a return of her competitive streak that initially defined her character in the pilot and would have been smart to revisit more often in the years ahead — and Dr. Cox attempting to show off on the basketball court and injuring his back, giving John McGinley a chance to be physical. Also, the series delights in offering some metatheatrical humor (an increasingly popular source of laughs in the self-aware single-cams of the mid 2000s) in its subplot where J.D. wonders if the Janitor was an actor in a past life. One of the year’s funniest. (Bernie Kopell guests.)
04) Episode 58: “My Catalyst” (Aired: 02/10/04)
A skilled surgeon with OCD comes to the hospital.
Written by Bill Lawrence | Directed by Michael Spiller
Michael J. Fox, with whom Bill Lawrence worked on Spin City, makes his first of two consecutive appearances as an old friend of Dr. Cox’s, a visiting doc with a severe case of OCD that’s played for big laughs but tempered by Fox’s inherent humanity. He’s also a burst of energy for the series and while I sometimes don’t like outings that predicate so much of their value on a guest, this is really focused on his interactions with members of the cast, such that it feels rooted in enough of Scrubs’ world to be laudable — and with creator Lawrence penning the teleplay, Scrubs’ essence is well-invoked as well. To wit, this script just feels particularly adept at exhibiting many of the central tenets of the show’s tonal and narrative identity.
05) Episode 59: “My Porcelain God” (Aired: 02/17/04)
A toilet installed on the roof proves quite popular with the staff.
Written by Tim Hobert & Eric Weinberg | Directed by Adam Bernstein
Fox sticks around for this entry — an even funnier showing nevertheless built around the genius but idea-driven gag of the “Epiphany Toilet,” a toilet that the Janitor has installed on the roof. When it appears to give its users insight and clarity about their problems, it becomes very popular, with staff members lining up to take a turn — including Elliot, who is in another crisis of faith about her skills as a doctor. Meanwhile, there’s an amusing subplot where Dr. Kelso’s efforts to save money by closing a wing of the hospital backfire on him, and a great J.D./Turk story where the latter picks the former to be his best man (after already asking his actual brother) — an idea that affirms their bond being the series’ emotional core. A favorite.
06) Episode 60: “My Screw Up” (Aired: 02/24/04)
Dr. Cox blames J.D. for the death of a patient.
Written by Neil Goldman & Garrett Donovan | Directed by Chris Koch
Brendan Fraser returns for this popular episode that I’m sure some of you reading this expected to be my MVE. However, with a story that deliberately couches its intentions in seeming normalcy before a jarring reveal at a cemetery — that Dr. Cox has been in his own head for the entire installment since his best friend (and Jordan’s brother) is actually dead — I just think it eschews too much of the genre’s requirements to cheer. That is, not only is it idea-led — the whole script is built for this moment — but it’s also willingly dramatic, supplanting comedy as this half hour’s raison d’être… That said, I still include it on this list because I appreciate that the drama is at least attached to personal stakes for the regulars, and also because it represents a vital aspect of both Scrubs’ identity and the Bill Lawrence ethos writ large, which is becoming more and more prominent. So, it’s not a great example of sitcommery, but it’s a great example of Scrubs and how it courts public praise (which worked — this excursion got two Emmy nods).
07) Episode 61: “My Tormented Mentor” (Aired: 03/02/04)
Sexual harassment and sexism become topics among the hospital staff.
Written by Gabrielle Allan | Directed by Craig Zisk
This entry has the tough task of following the previous and it actually does a pretty good job at progressing Dr. Cox and Jordan beyond their grief and back into a viable status quo. It’s also another particularly jokey script, with thematic cohesion regarding both accusations of sexual harassment in the hospital, along with sexism — the latter addressed by a new recurring surgeon played by Bellamy Young, whose inclusion never really reaches a narrative purpose, but provides others with workplace conflict in story during the back half of Three. I don’t love it, but I always appreciate tension between characters based on their defined differences.
08) Episode 62: “My Butterfly” (Aired: 03/16/04)
J.D. imagines how the smallest thing can affect major outcomes.
Written by Justin Spitzer | Directed by Henry Chan
This gimmicky outing basically employs a Sliding Doors structure — the script jokingly acknowledges the “Butterfly Effect” of how small things can create major consequences — but it doesn’t feel out of place on Scrubs, which not only enjoys fantasies and cutaways as part of its regular identity, but also is starting to embrace more episodic stunts as a recurring feature. Instead of just imaginative gags taking place within scenes, what we’ll see in the next few years, as the show becomes bigger overall, is that entire episodes predicate themselves on some narrative hook. In this regard, I consider this a genuine display of Scrubs’ ongoing crusade towards its peak era. But it’s also a fun, funny, series-validating segment in its own right.
09) Episode 65: “My Choosiest Choice Of All” (Aired: 04/20/04)
J.D. gets back with Danni in an attempt to make Elliot jealous.
Written by Mike Schwartz | Directed by Adam Bernstein
As discussed above, the end of Season Three really allows its rom-com happenings to take over and become the dominant source of story — in a way that I don’t exactly prefer, for although Scrubs has always been a bit of a romantic comedy (and will continue to put it leads in relationships), not all of this feels totally character-driven… especially with people like Elliot and her seasonal beau Sean (Scott Foley), both of whom need more definition. However, what I like about this entry is its comedic use of Tara Reid’s Danni as a vessel to bring about the year’s inevitable (and inevitably brief) Elliot/J.D. pairing, and the subplot with the Janitor as a security guard, all of which utilize Turk/Carla as a centralizing, focusing force.
10) Episode 67: “My Self-Examination” (Aired: 04/27/04)
J.D. struggles now that he and Elliot are in a relationship.
Written by Janae Bakken | Directed by Randall Winston
Season Three’s penultimate outing — before the wedding finale that is dominated by a Big Event and doesn’t feel enough like a normal Scrubs episode, narratively or tonally, to highlight — finds J.D. and Elliot at their most serious: in a formal, romantic relationship where both are probably expecting a happy ending… except not, for J.D., after crushing on her from afar for most of the year, realizes again that he doesn’t love her. This back-and-forth may be annoying, but the show knows that after this crucible — where he humiliates her publicly and thus officially ends the relationship — it should cool on them. (It took Friends longer to stop baiting us with Ross/Rachel!) And I think it’s not just a fun reversal of expectations to have them never paired for long, it also speaks to J.D.’s immaturity, which is an ongoing arc for the character and something he can believably evolve out of over time. Also, this is just a very funny, thoughtful offering — the subplot with Turk, Carla’s brother, and the speech from When Harry Met Sally is great. (Seinfeld fans — note that Larry Thomas, who played the Soup Nazi, has a cameo.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “My White Whale,” which has a fun subplot for Dr. Cox and guest star Christopher Meloni as a jerky pediatrician, “My Rule Of Thumb,” which has a funny story where Carla and Elliot try to get a terminal patient laid, and “My Fault,” which has to earn the J.D./Elliot reconciliation. I’ll also take this space to cite “My Brother, Where Art Thou?,” in which J.D.’s brother returns, “My Dirty Secret,” which has some amusing comedic through-lines in its various subplots, “His Story II,” which gets J.D. dressed like a clown, and “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” the Big Event season finale, where Carla and Turk get married — more memorable than great.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Scrubs goes to…
“My Fifteen Seconds”
Come back next week for Season Four! And stay tuned for a new Wildcard Wednesday!