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.
Season Five is another peak year for Scrubs — in fact, it’s the one I most often see cited as fans’ favorite. This makes sense — the year has a high baseline quality, with many strong episodes that stand out. Much like Four, the other peak year, Five also boasts a solid use of character within ideas that are still clever and fresh — attributes that typically enable success, particularly on idea-driven sitcoms. And what’s more, both Four and Five do the best job of exhibiting the series’ tonal balance of humor and heart, rendering them the best display of Scrubs’ identity, its situation. After this, the show will become a little too narratively obsessed with motivating its supposed finale (in Six), before having to deconstruct everything (in Seven), and then build it back up again (in Eight). This takes a toll on the characters and the storytelling, which thus becomes more labored — especially after Six — and the series’ comic inventiveness certainly takes a hit as well. So, Six remains decent, but Five is the last year before strain is evident, and for that reason, it feels like a height… Now, as discussed, the primary difference between this year and Four is that Four hewed more to the comedic side, with its biggest notions tending to prioritize laughs over emotion, while Five indulges more “heart” or sentiment, via more dramatic stories. Although the last quarter of Four got bogged down in some rom-com trappings, Five more frequently becomes narratively serious, deriving its episodic tension medically — from recurring patients and the life-or-death jeopardy enabled by the hospital setting. (Only the beginning and end of the year have rom-com cliffhanger concerns that get in the way of normal operations.) Fortunately, Five, like Four, is good about planting personal stakes for the regulars, making the drama more specific than it could be, and with a generally maintained balance of humor and heart, it’s passable. As always, I prefer more comedy — the genre demands it — but this more emotional side of Scrubs reveals the series’ overarching reputation and the ethos that separates it from its competition. In that regard, Scrubs is at its most Scrubs-like in Five — which, incidentally, earned the show another Emmy nod — and, with plenty of character and comedy, it’s an obvious candidate for the series’ best.
01) Episode 97: “My Jiggly Ball” (Aired: 01/10/06)
J.D. tries to find a human side to Dr. Kelso.
Written by Tim Hobert | Directed by Rick Blue
After a few scripts that had to reset the season’s new status quo — namely, getting Elliot to be single again, back at Sacred Heart, and J.D.’s new platonic roommate — while creating new story threads, like Turk and Carla’s efforts to conceive, and the fact that the leads are now attendings with interns of their own, Five starts to get into a more regular rhythm with this light installment that takes its title from the memorable game of “jiggly ball” invented by the Janitor. But what I really like about this entry is its A-story, where J.D. is tasked with introducing Dr. Kelso for an award and struggles to find something nice to say. His efforts to detect some shred of humanity in the mean doc is a lot of character-rooted fun, and it’s another exploration of the dynamic between J.D. and both of his contrasting seniors — Kelso and Dr. Cox.
02) Episode 100: “My Way Home” (Aired: 01/24/06)
J.D. tries to get home, while his friends search for brains, a heart, and courage.
Written by Neil Goldman & Garrett Donovan | Directed by Zach Braff
An MVE contender, this offering — aired as the 100th — is an example of how the series is increasingly concocting episode-length gimmicks, in evidence of its comic inventiveness. It’s an obvious, loving homage to the iconic The Wizard Of Oz (1939), with a technicolor visual scheme, dozens of allusions, and a story that basically features J.D.’s efforts to leave the hospital and go home, while Elliot tries to study (get more brains), Turk seeks a heart for his patient, and Carla is nervous about having kids (and thus needs courage). It’s clever, imaginative, and though maybe not a laugh riot, it’s amusing and sweet in a touching way that feels very much in the spirit of Bill Lawrence’s personal style and the unique tenor of Scrubs, which — particularly in this season — is adopting this sensibility more overtly. In fact, I think “My Way Home” is a quintessential representation of how Season Five is the chief ambassador of the series (tonally and in terms of its narrative aggrandizement). One of my favorites.
03) Episode 101: “My Big Bird” (Aired: 01/24/06)
J.D., Elliot, Turk, and Carla are investigated following a patient’s death.
Written by Debra Fordham | Directed by Rob Greenberg
You’ll notice that “My Big Bird” first aired on the same night as “My Way Home.” This is because the new season didn’t premiere until January 2006, as NBC held Scrubs for midseason, forcing the show to run back-to-back new outings for many weeks. So, this has nothing to do with the above — it’s just another clever entry that uses a focusing narrative structure: the core foursome is investigated over a patient’s death. Through flashbacks, we see that they were all doing things they weren’t supposed to be — a funny way of reinforcing their characterizations, and the show’s comedic chops, in a novel medical plot that manages to couch life-and-death tension inside the bounds of an ensemble workplace comedy. Also, note that this segment features Michael Learned in her role as Mrs. Wilk, a patient who recurs this season and ends up dying — an illustration of the show creating personal stakes for the leads by building up their association with a guest. (Oh, and both Jason Bateman and Peter Jacobson appear.)
04) Episode 102: “My Half-Acre” (Aired: 02/07/06)
J.D. tries not to scare off his new girlfriend.
Written by Bill Callahan | Directed by Linda Mendoza
Mandy Moore makes her first of two consecutive appearances in this installment, where she plays J.D.’s new attractive but very klutzy girlfriend. Usually, J.D.’s brief love interests have no personality whatsoever (like the forthcoming Kim, who unfortunately is supposed to play a big role in his emotional development) and can’t be used comedically in story. So, I appreciate that this woman is given a specific way to exist and inspire both laughs and conflict. It’s especially fun to see J.D. with someone who is more awkward and goofy than he is — and that’s a testament to this being a good idea for his character. Additionally, there’s an affable subplot with Turk and the Janitor’s “air band” that speaks to Scrubs’ general silliness.
05) Episode 103: “Her Story II” (Aired: 02/07/06)
J.D.’s friends worry that he’ll ruin his new relationship, while Carla feels old.
Written by Mike Schwartz | Directed by Chris Koch
The Mandy Moore arc ends in this offering, which also continues the trend of having J.D. share voice-over duties with another member of the ensemble. This time, it’s Carla’s turn, and it ends up being one of her best half hours of the entire series, with a story that plays both to her season-long narrative about trying to conceive and also utilizes her established characterization for a fun episodic idea that reveals her sometimes ignored comedic potential. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of J.D. as well, when his friends stage an intervention about how he sabotages his relationships — compelling evidence rooted in his character’s continuity, even though it’s clear, in this instance, this girl isn’t the right one for him either. (Billy Dee Williams appears as himself.)
06) Episode 106: “My Five Stages” (Aired: 03/07/06)
A grief counselor is called to help Mrs. Wilk deal with her upcoming death.
Written by Tad Quill | Directed by James Alaimo
Dave Foley guests in this memorable outing as a grief counselor for Mrs. Wilk, the patient whose run finally concludes here with her passing. It’s the culmination of an ambitious narrative idea that really pays off, for the inherent life-or-death jeopardy of the hospital setting allows the series to frequently display its desired tonal complexity (which is part of the Bill Lawrence experience — and a unique aspect of Scrubs’ identity relative to others in the genre). But by making this an arc, the season also creates opportunities for the leading characters to build bonds with the guest over time, thereby creating emotional stakes that are more personal and specific to them, and thus more individualized to the series itself. Indeed, the grief counselor turns out to be more helpful for Dr. Cox and J.D. than Mrs. Wilk — the perfect encapsulation of how Scrubs, especially in Five, is able to justify its dramatic endeavors by providing meaningful support from elements of the show’s situation, like the characters (and their core relationships).
07) Episode 109: “My Bright Idea” (Aired: 03/28/06)
J.D. and Turk spread the news of Carla’s pregnancy before she even knows.
Written by Janae Bakken | Directed by Michael Spiller
What I most enjoy about this installment is that it could have been a “Big Event” episode — the one where the couple who’ve been trying to get pregnant all season learn that they are finally expecting — but Scrubs finds a way to deflate it down to normalcy, emphasizing the series’ regular comedic sensibilities in the process. It starts by having a good idea that makes sense for the characters, as Turk and J.D. discover (before Carla) that she’s pregnant, and they plan to do a big elaborate reveal to her using everyone in the hospital… that is, until she says she wants to tell all of her friends individually. And the climax, where she learns that everyone already knew, is not anti-climactic, but beautifully fitting — all earned by these characterizations. Accordingly, I laud this entry for using its regulars to motivate its comedy and making an otherwise inevitable narrative development feel more specific to the show and its particulars.
08) Episode 112: “His Story III” (Aired: 04/18/06)
The Janitor locks J.D. in the water tower and bonds with a patient.
Written by Angela Nissel | Directed by John Inwood
Another in the running trend of having a lead other than J.D. anchor a half hour, “His Story III” is focused on the Janitor, who locks J.D. in the water tower, making this an atypical sample of Scrubs given its star’s minimal usage. However, as noted previously, I consider the Janitor to be a comedically interesting but often underused regular, so I appreciate whenever he gains some added depth (while still staying funny), and this offering stands out because of its unusual exploration of someone who deserves more exposure but seldom gets it, remaining enough of a mystery to keep his basic joke alive. Also, the subplots use the ensemble and the workplace dynamics well too, as Elliot is circumvented by Carla, and Cox tells Turk he acts “white.” In brief, I would miss this excursion if it wasn’t here. (Markie Post appears.)
09) Episode 113: “My Lunch” (Aired: 04/25/06)
J.D. feels guilty after recurring patient Jill dies of an overdose.
Written by Tad Quill | Directed by John Michel
My pick for this year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “My Lunch” is easily the best illustration of Season Five’s tonal mastery with Scrubs’ intended identity, particularly by its balance of humor and heart via stories that are both comedic and, in this case, dramatic — with strong character stakes in both. The heavier stuff in this entry comes from the return of Nicole Sullivan as Jill, the recurring patient who spends time with a reluctant J.D. before winding up dead of an overdose — something about which he feels guilty. Then, their attempt to donate her organs to several people who need them wrecks Dr. Cox when it’s learned that Jill had rabies at the time of her death and all the recipients die as a result. Rabies, in many contexts, would be a jokey affliction, but it has grave consequences here, and sets up the next installment, where Cox has a crisis of faith in his own abilities as a doctor. That’s the kind of fare one expects of a medical series, but it’s personalized, both for Cox and J.D., and that’s why it’s a better example of Scrubs veering more serious than most. Also, this outing is actually very funny as well — in a way that most of the darker ones aren’t — with a hysterical subplot for The Todd, a peripheral player who’s usually used as the butt of easy jokes, but really gets to thrive in an amusing story that literally reckons with the innate dichotomies and dualities of his own thin, sideline characterization. And in using the other members of the hospital well, this is another good reinforcement of the series’ workplace design. In this regard, there’s no other entry in Five that I think evidences the best version of what Scrubs wants to be, and can be, at its finest.
10) Episode 114: “My Fallen Idol” (Aired: 05/02/06)
The staff tries to coax Dr. Cox back to work.
Written by Bill Callahan | Directed by Joanna Kerns
This offering is the popular continuation of the previous, as Dr. Cox is sulking at home and all the other regulars visit to try and coax him out of his depression. Naturally, only J.D. can do the trick at the end of this half hour (as expected), but it’s nice to see the various and specific relational dynamics each lead shares with Cox, one of the series’ workplace staples and someone who, theoretically, should have a unique rapport with each person in the main ensemble. Meanwhile, there’s fun in the subplot, as Turk has trouble connecting with a new touchy-feely surgeon (played by Paul Adelstein) — a nice chance to define his characterization against a comedically well-drawn guest. So, this is just another solid display of Scrubs and its characters.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “My Buddy’s Booty,” which I most wanted to highlight because it launches Elliot’s long-term relationship with new recurring cast member Keith (Travis Schuldt), one of J.D.’s interns. I like this for her, for although Elliot doesn’t have much of a definable personality anymore, and this guy doesn’t help give her one, Keith’s specific workplace dynamic with J.D. allows the show to remind us of the Elliot/J.D. history without any tortured maneuverings. Also, the show develops for Keith a comedically utilizable persona — the “Dude Meister” being an obvious contrast to the more gangly J.D. — and this gives more support to these idea-led notions. I’ll also take this space to cite “My Cabbage,” which plays with J.D.’s jealousy of Keith, “My Intern’s Eyes,” the breezy season premiere, “My Day At The Races,” which progresses J.D. and Elliot’s friendship, and “My Chopped Liver,” a solid medical and workplace outing. Lastly, “My New God” stands out for its guest appearance by Cheryl Hines as Dr. Cox’s overly religious sister, with whom he clashes.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of Scrubs goes to…
Come back next week for Season Six! And stay tuned for a new Wildcard Wednesday!