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 Four is when Scrubs ascends into its peak, as the show becomes really good at balancing its humor and heart, but with priority (temporarily) to the former. Also, the show is still creatively fresh with story — offering plenty of scripts that examine how the leads interact with one another in the workplace, while the characterizations, despite not being as sharp as they were early on, contribute to the storytelling via their (mostly) clear definitions. This will, for the most part, maintain through Six, but everything about Scrubs will be bigger by then — specifically, there’ll be more episodic gimmicks and aggrandized story ideas, featuring more extremes in both comedy and drama, especially as the show attempts to motivate character growth for a presumed (then preempted) finale. Five, on the other hand, is equally ideal — another peak season, but more dramatic and sentimental than comedic in its emphasis, shifting the balance of how it projects the series’ identity. This renders Five more indicative of Scrubs’ overall ethos, although Four stands as the more desirable in terms of comedy, allowing it to make a better case for the series’ viability as a worthwhile sitcom. To that point, I pretty much like every episode here… Okay, the final stretch of outings, which, like Three, indulge their rom-com trappings a little too heavily (as Carla and Turk struggle in their marriage, and J.D. dates and then is dumped by Kylie), are not as strong as those before, but Four’s certainly better than Three at finding ways for its relationship stories to have more support from the regulars, and thus, the situation. That’s one reason why I like Four’s arc with Heather Graham as Molly, who appears in the year’s first eight entries (and then pops back in later) — she has such a well-defined personality and is easily the best of J.D.’s potential recurring love interests. Her inclusion exemplifies and increases the opportunities for Scrubs to attach its goofy and/or warm ideas directly to the characters, most of whom remain eager support. (Heck, Elliot has one of her best seasons as well — more below.) And with a lot of laughs, plus a fairly good qualitative consistency, this season — which, incidentally, earned both the series and star Zach Braff Emmy nods — is the start of Scrubs’ two-year peak. My personal favorite.
01) Episode 69: “My Old Friend’s New Friend” (Aired: 08/31/04)
Elliot befriends the hospital’s new psychiatrist.
Written by Eric Weinberg | Directed by Bill Lawrence
Scrubs continues its trend of strong premieres with this excursion, which evidences the show’s easy, breezy style in a comedically elevated teleplay that carries the action from Three to Four by addressing the J.D./Elliot breakup and having Carla and Turk return from their honeymoon — the latter in a sequence that reiterates the J.D./Turk bond as the series’ emotional core. What I also like about this entry is that it introduces Heather Graham as Molly, the hospital’s new shrink — a great temporary player who has a specific persona (her optimism), that contrasts well against everyone, particularly Elliot, in a dour state following J.D.’s public humiliation of her. Molly also has tonally validating chemistry with J.D., for whom she’s posited as a potential love interest. So, this sets up Season Four in an exciting way. (The Sugarhill Gang appears.)
02) Episode 70: “My Office” (Aired: 09/07/04)
J.D. and Elliot are both named the new chief residents.
Written by Matt Tarses | Directed by Gail Mancuso
One of the reasons that Season Four’s storytelling is so smart — primarily in its first half — is that it’s able to attach its medical idea-driven plots to the characterizations, even in arc-based concerns. For instance, the lingering tension between J.D. and Elliot following their breakup is exacerbated by a rivalry for the position of chief resident — which they both get and now must share. This is a terrific excuse to funnel their conflict through workplace fare, and it actually makes for some of the best EVER use of Elliot, who otherwise has been nebulously defined since her quick dilution. That is, now that she has a precise attitude, and a justification for being that way, towards the series’ lead, she can be deployed in story that’s motivated by elements of her character, and specifically, how she currently feels about him. Once this evaporates, she goes back to being less utilizable… Also, the subplots here are choice, with an amusing patient story about a light bulb in a rectum, and an exploration of the Carla/Molly dynamic.
03) Episode 74: “My Cake” (Aired: 10/12/04)
J.D.’s brother visits after their father passes away.
Written by Neil Goldman & Garrett Donovan | Directed by Henry Chan
Tom Cavanagh returns as J.D.’s brother Dan for this outing that serves as a tribute to the late, great John Ritter, who played their father. In acknowledging his death and dealing with the boys’ grief, this script naturally encourages the bittersweet, sentimental (occasionally dramatic) tone to which Bill Lawrence seems attracted, and which Scrubs often invites because of the life-and-death jeopardy in its hospital setting. It’s not my favorite — I prefer more outright comedy — but it’s at least rooted in character stakes. And with a simultaneous focus on the relationship between J.D. and Dr. Cox, which is another important element of the situation, it’s well-designed. Oh, and I appreciate the arc this season where Turk is diagnosed with diabetes — it’s medical and allows for fun ideas with him and Carla. (Of note: Chuck Woolery appears.)
04) Episode 76: “My Last Chance” (Aired: 10/26/04)
J.D. needs Elliot’s permission to sleep with Molly.
Written by Mike Schwartz | Directed by Zach Braff
My choice for this year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “My Last Chance” is the best sample of Season Four’s individual strengths — and in being the best from one of the best seasons of Scrubs, I consider it a series highlight: on the short list of segments that I’m most glad to be able to feature on this blog. It’s not only well-written, but it’s got the right foundation for story, as it’s centered on the year’s arc with Molly, who is leaving at the end of this half hour. Knowing that his time with her is limited, J.D. finally shoots his shot, and she agrees to a tryst — but only if he gets permission from her best friend, his ex, Elliot. This is a stellar narrative setup because it turns the focus back to the J.D. and Elliot relationship, which currently has dramatic shape in the wake of their failed romance and, again, gives her a specific perspective that colors her entire usage and therefore makes this ideal sitcommery, directly tying what we know of her characterization to action. The course that this narrative takes, with the final reveal that Elliot pranked him all along, is brilliant. Also, I love the subplot, which guest stars Molly Shannon as an ambulance driver with whom Dr. Cox is forced to perform community service. She’s hysterically obnoxious — until Dr. Cox realizes that she’s in mourning over her son’s passing. It’s an emotional beat that evidences Scrubs’ ability, particularly in this era, to balance humor and heart, and because the rest of this entry is so funny, it’s actually affecting — it does what it needs to do as a sitcom, but also spotlights the series’ unique tonal ethos, which it’s now great at projecting. So, this is the best display of what Scrubs has to offer here in this peak season.
05) Episode 78: “My Female Trouble” (Aired: 11/16/04)
J.D. is dating the lawyer whose client is suing Turk for malpractice.
Written by Debra Fordham | Directed by Chris Koch
Julianna Margulies, who debuted in the previous outing, returns here as the ferocious lawyer that a recurring hypochondriac (Spin City alum Richard Kind) has hired to sue Turk for medical malpractice. Only, she’s currently in a relationship with J.D. — who is essentially caught between his best friend and his new flame. It’s a fun, easy dilemma for him, and it’s another example of how the show can marry elements of its situation to an idea-driven medical story, accentuating comedic and dramatic value. Also, I appreciate the subplot, where Elliot pretends that “Dr. Elliot Reid” is a man so she can treat a sexist patient who otherwise wouldn’t take her seriously — it’s a chance for her to distinguish herself as a doctor while making active choices.
06) Episode 79: “My Unicorn” (Aired: 11/23/04)
J.D. tries to convince a man to donate a kidney to his ailing father.
Written by Gabrielle Allan & Tad Quill | Directed by Matthew Perry
A gimmicky Sweeps excursion from this liminal TV season where NBC’s biggest sitcoms had vamoosed and Scrubs was now one of the top dogs (by default), “My Unicorn” is most notable for guest starring Friends’ late Matthew Perry (who also directed), along with his dad, John Bennett Perry. They also play father and son in a story where the elder Perry’s character needs a kidney — a routine medical idea, enlivened by the stunt casting. But there’s a comedic and dramatic verve to this already memorable half hour that creates value beyond just the stunt, like in the subplot, which allows Elliot an opportunity to be funny as her attempts to flirt her way to success in the workplace backfire. There’s nothing here that really sticks for her character, but in showing us an episodic sample of what she’s not, there’s an implication of what she is. It’s still overly generic, but I’m being an optimist right now, and it’s something. (Masa Oki appears.)
07) Episode 80: “My Best Moment” (Aired: 12/07/04)
The staff tries to get a patient home and better before Christmas.
Written by Angela Nissel | Directed by Chris Koch
This Christmas installment is just a solid showcase for all the regulars, with a script that does a good job involving them in the action, exhibiting the workplace format and its capacity for medical stories that balance both humor and heart — a blend Scrubs loves to provide, and it’s especially justified when holiday themed. I also appreciate this outing for its fantasy flashback sequences, which has everyone pondering their so-called “best moments” (no, it’s not a clip show), ultimately for the purpose of highlighting J.D.’s growth as a doctor — a sign of his maturation, and the single most important arc for his character and the series. This is something that can always give some earned dramatic weight to an otherwise idea-driven affair.
08) Episode 82: “My Lucky Charm” (Aired: 01/25/05)
J.D. and Turk are jealous of a popular guy who visits the hospital.
Written by Mike Schwartz | Directed by Chris Koch
Much like the gimmicky guest appearance above by Matthew Perry, this entry will always have an inflated appeal thanks to its stunt casting of Colin Farrell, who plays a popular guy that takes the hospital by storm, before it’s learned that he’s responsible for beating up a man and sending him to the E/R. It’s an interesting notion that mostly works because it involves the J.D./Turk friendship, which is the emotional core of the series, and because the story has implications related to their maturation. Also, the subplots are relationship-based as well — especially fun are the Elliot/Carla catfight and the back-and-forth vasectomy stuff with Dr. Cox and Jordan, whose dynamic thrives when they’re at odds. Frankly, I’d miss this one if it wasn’t here.
09) Episode 85: “My Life In Four Cameras” (Aired: 02/15/05)
J.D. imagines life in the hospital as a multi-camera sitcom.
Written by Debra Fordham | Directed by Adam Bernstein
In early years, Scrubs’ gimmickry was largely confined to its fantasy sequences, which would occur as individual moments inside episodes. As we’ll see over these next few seasons, the show’s narrative sense of self enlarges, and so do the stunts, with entire half hours predicated on gimmicks. This popular installment is a preview, dedicating most of itself to a centerpiece that’s deliberately produced in front of a live studio audience like a multi-camera sitcom. Now, let’s be clear, it’s a bad multi-camera sitcom, for Scrubs is taking the opportunity to laud its own single-camera rebellion by lobbing cheap shots at the alternative format — highlighting the latter’s apparent artifice by offering stupid jokes followed by big responses from the crowd. It’s therefore neither a fair nor sincere representation — only proving its chosen thesis because it’s a caricature of the form, not a true example. As a fan of the genre, I’m offended. But this show’s goal is not to display a genuine distinction — it’s to draw a contrast between “real life” and “TV,” and by using “multi-cam” as a fantastical juxtaposition against Scrubs’ status quo, it is indeed utilizing a core aspect of Scrubs identity to make its dramatic point and validate its own existence. So, in evidence of Scrubs’ own situation, and the narrative style of gimmickry it’s increasingly adopting, I had to feature it here. (Clay Aiken has a cameo.)
10) Episode 87: “My Best Laid Plans” (Aired: 03/01/05)
J.D. must choose between Molly and Kylie.
Written by Bill Callahan | Directed by Zach Braff
This A-story — in which Heather Graham’s Molly returns for a predictable conflict where J.D. is forced to choose between his old love interest and his current one, only to lose them both by the end — is nothing exceptional, and in fact, it’s a sample of that rom-com storytelling that takes over the last few weeks of the season. These aren’t the best segments, compared to what came earlier, but they have their moments, especially this outing, which gives a lot to the peripherally used Janitor, played by the funny Neil Flynn. This script fleshes out his characterization by using his crush on Elliot for story — a way to define him in this workplace by expanding his relational dynamics. For him, it’s memorable and hard to ignore.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “My Common Enemy,” which is a tribute to the Molly characterization, as she’s contrasted well against both Cox and Kelso, along with “My New Game,” where J.D. is humbled in his workplace rivalry with Elliot, “My Orcardial Infarction,” which again puts J.D. and Elliot in competition, and “My Quarantine,” which benefits from the Aristotelian Unities. I’ll also take this space to cite “My First Kill,” for the J.D. growth story and subplot with Rusty, and “My Malpractice Decision,” a solid entry that sets up the aforementioned dilemma in “My Female Trouble.” Oh, and I don’t love it, but I appreciate how J.D. is seemingly forced to mature in the finale, “My Changing Ways.”
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Scrubs goes to…
“My Last Chance”
Come back next week for Season Five! And stay tuned for a new Wildcard Wednesday!