Scrubs- can hospitals be funny?
At the turn of the century, reality shows were the next big thing, and the biggest reality show of all was Survivor- a million dollar quest that pit 20 people against each other in a drama of backstabbing and deprivation. But this is not about that show. Survivor aired on Thursday nights back then, opposite a scrappy comedy show named Scrubs, and like a fool I became a fan of Survivor for a decade, missing out entirely on the run of Scrubs, which was from 2001-2009. There was no streaming back then, and dvd's were expensive, so if you missed out on a show, you just missed out.
Scrubs flew below my radar for the entire 00's, perhaps because it didn't contain any big stars and won no Emmy awards aside from some technical ones. I made up for this omission recently with a summer binge of all eight seasons of the series, and I can safely conclude that it was sadly overlooked by the Emmy voters and posterity. The show is available to stream on Amazon Prime and Hulu, and DVD's are also available. It ran on NBC for 7 seasons, and finished off on ABC. It ran on the same night and network as The Office, but hasn't garnered near the following as its fellow sitcom.
This show takes place in the fictional Sacred Heart Hospital- a real hospital that was converted to a movie set and eventually torn down. It follows the lives of doctors, nurses, and patients in a breezy format that alternates between silliness and sadness in a well-crafted way. Only one other popular sitcom has succeeded in milking laughs from the potentially stressful and dramatic world of medicine- M*A*S*H. And that show threw wartime medicine into the mix. Scrubs is not comparable to M*A*S*H, but it comes closer than I would have thought having known nothing about it.
Scrubs borrows a formula that was perfected by The Wonder Years back in 1988. Create some zany, flawed characters and play up conflicts for laughs for the first 20 minutes, and then get sad and sentimental near the end with stirring music, lessons learned, and satisfying resolutions. I found myself laughing quite a bit, but ending many episodes with tears in my eyes. It's a potent combination that is oddly satisfying, and a contrast from comedies of earlier times like I Love Lucy, The Addams Family, Happy Days, or Seinfeld.
The creator of Scrubs, Bill Lawrence, is someone few people know of, but he does an excellent job setting up and producing this show. Lawrence was also known for Spin City and Cougar Town, and is currently producing the acclaimed comedy Ted Lasso. All of his shows seem to shoot for a mix of comedy and poignancy, and I look forward to his next adventures.
The show revolves around its main character, Dr. John Dorian, aka JD, played wonderfully by Zach Braff. We see the hospital through his eyes from the first episode until the last, and he narrates most of them with both humor and introspection. JD is played as a man-child, goofy, silly, and earnest, who is nice to his patients and prone to disappear into fantasy moments that take us to silly places that balance out the drama of a hospital.
JD has a partner in crime to encourage his childishness, and that is surgeon Dr. Turk, played by Donald Faison. The two of them share an apartment with a stuffed dog and have a multitude of secret games and fantasies that make them lovable and real. The fact that JD is white and Turk is black is never an issue, and the close relationship between them is endearing and inspiring. The beautiful and fun relationship between the two is a great contrast to the racism and fear of closeness that afflicts adult men especially.
JD has many romantic relationships during the season, most notably with his eventual wife Elliot Reid (played by Sarah Chalke). This show learned the lesson that you can't marry off all of your main characters because then it gets boring. (Though Turk and his girlfriend Carla get married and have children.) There has to be some joy and sadness, some mystery and sexual tension, and we get that as both JD and Elliott bounce between each other and other relationships that pop up during the run of the show. They eventually quietly reconcile in the 8th season, getting back together even though JD has a child by another woman.
There are three funny foils who act as semi-villains to add conflict and humor that work pretty well. Neil Flynn plays a crazy janitor who constantly torments JD, and he gets away with nutty behavior because there are no consequences to the patients. Ken Jenkins plays the tough but quirky hospital administrator Dr. Kelso that all the staff have to deal with. But the real star of the show, besides Braff, is Ted McGinley's Dr. Cox, and over-the-top chief resident who berates JD and expects him to do better and better. McGinley plays a character who is tough on the outside but complex on the inside. Dr Cox exaggerates his abuse by constantly saying he doesn't care and addressing people with derogatory names, but it's plain to see that he cares a great deal, even if he has an odd way of expressing it.
There have been many great hospital dramas- Chicago Hope, ER, Grey's Anatomy, but only one great hospital comedy- Scrubs. This show mixes pathos and zaniness, dealing with heavy topics like death and dying in a respectful and honest way. It's a hard line to walk, but kudos to Bill Lawrence for figuring it out. Here is a list of some of my favorite episode discovered during this binge.
1- My musical. This innovative episode lets the cast members sing and dance to some catchy and meaningful songs. The episode revolves around a patient who has a brain tumor that causes her to think that everyone around her is singing to her.
2- My life in four cameras. The show makes fun of itself by imagining itself as a traditional four camera sitcom setting with laugh track and everything, which makes an interesting contrast between the laughs and the real pain when they return to the hospital setting.
3- My way home. A fun tribute to the Wizard of Oz where the characters endure struggles similar to the ones that happened in the movie.
4- My finale. The last episode of season 8 where JD leaves the hospital for good. Many touching cameos and goodbyes make this one of the best series enders ever. For some reason, the network tried to do a season 9 with a mostly new cast that didn't quite work out.
5- My fallen idol. Dr. Cox goes into a deep depression after losing patients and JD is the only one to break through his notoriously tough exterior.
6- My screw up. Brendon Fraser guest stars as Dr. Cox's brother in this infamous episode with one of the best and most emotional twist endings ever seen on television.
7- My butterfly. The butterfly effect is shown to portray how things can turn out very differently when tiny changes get the ball rolling. Two scenarios of the same day play out, some with better results and some with the same results showing how fragile time can be.
8- My first day. The series pilot does a great job introducing the characters and setting the scene. Most pilots never get picked up, but thank goodness this one was.
9- Her story/ Their story. Most of the episodes are narrated by JD, and we get to hear his bizarre innermost thoughts and fantasies. But every so often they turn the narrating duties over to other characters, and we get to hear THEIR inner dialogues, which mixes things up and develops characters in an interesting way.
10- Tie between My five stages, My lunch, My long goodbye, My last words, and My old lady. While the doctors at Sacred Heart do have many substantial victories in saving lives, these and other episodes focus on deaths. One long running character dies suddenly in My Long Goodbye, and patients die in the other four episodes, all played for maximum poignancy and respect. This is where Scrubs really shines, in its honest dealings with death and its touchy attempts to find humor amidst the pain.