Scrubs took its time to make a musical episode, but made it count

Scrubs took its time to make a musical episode, but made it count

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that deal with a central theme. The next two installments focus on episodes with musical sequences.

“My Musical” (Scrubs, season six, episode six; originally aired 1/18/2007)

In which an aneurism turns Sacred Heart into a Broadway stage…

(Available on Netflix and Amazon)

Ryan McGee: We’re nearly at the end of this particular phase of the Roundtable, but I’m not sure we’ve actually addressed this question in particular: To what extent does the music in the episodes we’ve discussed act as crutch? I ask this now because Scrubs balanced the comedic and dramatic over the course of its improbably long run, starting with its first-season episode “My Old Lady.” By its very nature as a medical show, the series dealt with death (or at least its specter) on an ongoing basis, which helped explain both the silliness on its surface (doctors and medical students who often used frivolity as a coping mechanism) and the darkness that more than occasionally rose to the surface.

“My Musical” is the realization of a longstanding dream for the creative team behind Scrubs, with creator Bill Lawrence just one of many in the writers’ room who wanted to stage a musical episode. While “My Way Or The Highway” and “My Philosophy” featured production numbers, “My Musical” is a full-tilt, start-to-finish musical that pays direct and indirect homages to Broadway. With many on the show thinking the sixth season would be its last, credited writer Debra Fordham took it upon herself to craft the script during the summer hiatus. After that, a series of composers—including Avenue Q scribes Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez—helped craft the songs for the episode. There’s yet another Avenue Q connection in this episode, with guest star Stephanie D’Abruzzo having made her name in that production. 

D’Abruzzo plays Patti Miller, a woman who collapses in a park while J.D. clings to Elliot Reid after the departure of his pregnant girlfriend. The conceit of the episode is that after this collapse, Patti sees everything through the POV of a musical, which includes rhyming couplets, an unseen orchestra, and choreographed dance moves. Those in Sacred Heart see the world through normal eyes, but a routine check-in for them becomes “Welcome To Sacred Heart” to Patti, a full-blown production involving dozens of denizens circling around her in perfect unison. That trend continues throughout the first act: Each time Patti observes the action, everything turns to song; each time she’s absent, it’s just a normal episode of Scrubs. Elsewhere, Elliot buys her first house and Carla mulls staying home for a year in order to raise her daughter. These are fine, forgettable plots. They’re background to Patti’s condition, which perplexes the doctors for the first half of the episode.

Soon, we learn that she’s not “cuckoo pants,” as Dr. Cox originally diagnoses. Rather, she has a massive aneurism in her brain. “My Musical” doesn’t immediately go dark after that revelation. (There’s still “Guy Love” and “For The Last Time, I’m Dominican” in the aftermath of that diagnosis.) But when “Friends Forever” appears to close out the episode, Patti interrupts the revelry, a moment that makes this an episode I’ve watched more than almost any other. “What’s Going To Happen?” is both a plea and an admonition, a way to call attention to herself while also shaming those who had already almost forgotten about her. I have no way of knowing if this was the episode’s intention, but the more I watch this episode, the more I think “What’s Going To Happen?” is the series’ greatest example of calling bullshit on the more-than-occasionally self-centered employees of Sacred Heart.

But I didn’t get that the first 15 or so times I watched this episode. Mostly, all I got were the notes D’Abruzzo hits on the word “time” and “me” in “What’s Going To Happen?” The first acts like a sudden jab, freezing me into place, and the second one floors me. Every time I watch this, I tear up when she sings that second word. All of this gets me back to my initial question: Does the music help Scrubs achieve the goal it has in that moment, or is reducing the viewer to emotional rubble through song a cheat? I’d like to think it’s a testament to the power of music itself, and the way “My Musical,” like so many Scrubs installments, packs a great and unexpected emotional sucker punch. But there are plenty of instances, especially in soundtracks, in which the music does the heavy lifting an episode itself could not achieve. I’d love to hear from the rest of you how the music works here, but also how it’s worked overall in the episodes we’ve covered in this particular series on the Roundtable.

Genevieve Koski: As you mention, Ryan, a full-on Scrubs musical seems like an inevitability, rather than an anomaly, as has been the case with pretty much every other case in this Roundtable. A simple Google search for “Scrubs musical moments” will bring up pages of results and YouTube supercuts—as good a barometer as any for measuring a series’ musical ambitions—so it should come as no surprise that when the show decided to go all-in on a full-blown musical, it did it right. Not only are the cast members all game and (in most cases) able, but the ambition on display does right by the episode’s Broadway lineage, incorporating major dance numbers, direction flourishes indebted to old Hollywood musicals, and a whopping eight original songs in the span of 23 minutes.

While the regular cast does an admirable—and in some cases more than admirable—job handling the musical material, the real stars here are the songwriters. Five writers are credited with the music and lyrics, including Paul Perry of The Worthless Peons, Ted’s a cappella group within the show, and Tony-nominated Broadway orchestrator Doug Besterman. Anyone’s who’s seen or listened to Avenue Q—or Book Of Mormon, which Lopez also co-created—can probably hear which songs Lopez and Marx co-penned with Fordham. The adorably icky ode to dookie “Everything Comes Down To Poo” is a gimme; such gleeful dissection of poo-based wordplay could only come from the impish minds behind “The Internet Is For Porn” and “It Sucks To Be Me.” But at the risk of over-generalizing, Lopez and Marx are responsible for all of the episode’s big, Broadway-style showstoppers, which show the writers’ talent for blending stage-musical references with modern-sounding lyrics, sly comedy, and deft sentimentality. It’s easy enough to map the reference points behind “Welcome To Sacred Heart,” “When The Truth Comes Out,” and “Friends Forever/What’s Going To Happen?”—42nd Street, Les Misérables, and Grease/Rent, respectively—but it’s not so easy to blend those references with a sensibility as specific, quirky, and fully realized as that of Scrubs. Those three songs are the pillars holding up “My Musical”—which isn’t to say numbers like “Poo” or “Guy Love” are filler, but they’re much more enjoyable character pieces than they are grand showstoppers.

That said, I’d be remiss not to point out my favorite of these character pieces: The Gilbert and Sullivan homage “The Rant Song.” Though this one isn’t credited to Lopez/Marx, it’s another great example of taking a reference point and making it work for the story, rather than just mining it for its familiarity. While “The Rant Song” is a straight parody of “I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major General,” delivered with aplomb by John C. McGinley and Neil Flynn—whose stage backgrounds are on display here—it’s also an ideal vehicle for Dr. Cox’s customary tirade toward J.D., something without which no Scrubs episode would be complete. (I particularly love the section that incorporates a bunch of Cox’s girl-names for J.D.) 

Beyond that, “The Rant Song” serves to keep D’Abruzzo’s story moving. In some numbers—namely “We’re Gonna Miss You Carla,” “Guy Love,” and “For The Last Time, I’m Dominican”—the conceit of “My Musical” gets a little clunky, as D’Abruzzo sits and observes while characters move into her musical-addled orbit to deliver their numbers. “The Rant Song” initially seems to be doing the same thing, having D’Abruzzo look on while two characters have a conversation unrelated to her. But then she sees an opening, a way to get Dr. Cox on her side and hustle her through her tests and diagnosis, jumping in to belt out a perfectly timed (and pitched) “shut your cakehole, Mary Beth” and win Cox’s respect. While it’s an enjoyable and funny number in its own right, “The Rant Song” is far from a crutch; in fact, it’s perhaps the best incorporation of the musical format into the Scrubs milieu, one that remains true to the characters, the story, and its musical inspiration all at the same time. That’s no easy feat, and the fact that “My Musical” has so many instances of doing it right is pretty incredible.

Donna Bowman: I get why Bill Lawrence shows aren’t for everyone. His combination of enthusiastic and unironic quirkiness, cartoonishly drawn characters, and super-sappiness, in which the mood often turns on a dime from broad gag to somber self-reflection (and not jokingly, the way it might on Childrens Hospital), grates on some people like nails on a chalkboard. But Bill Lawrence shows don’t have to be for everyone; they can just be perfect for me. They’re clever, but not self-congratulatory. There’s a winning energy at the best of times—an infectious “let’s put on a show” spirit. The unabashed gag-centrism of the show reminds me of vaudeville, and the liberal use of sound effects, rim-shots, and stock characters given to reiterating their stock character traits leads me to believe the association is intentional.

Although at first I didn’t remember this musical episode from when we watched it first-run, everything came rushing back to me at the first notes of “Guy Love.” I believe Noel and I crooned that tune at odd moments for weeks afterwards. And watching the whole thing again, I’m struck with what a fantastic half-hour of television Ryan picked for us. The whole personal panoply of Things That Release Endorphins In Donna’s Brain is here: Choreography, patter, and songs. Unmerited hope in the face of mortal fear. Ensemble singing. Unusual camera angles (e.g., gurney-mounted, dug into the floor, Citizen Kane-style). Performers using their whole asses for my entertainment.

And the music works like gangbusters to tell this story. 

The entire artistic motivation for a musical is to say the things that seem too transcendent for mere prose, in the way our hearts feel they ought to be said. That’s best exemplified by “What’s Going To Happen?,” in the way the actions of the Sacred Heart staff are interpreted by Patti as a direct promise that they will all stand by her at this moment, and that they are confident it will all be okay. (The way Dr. Cox shushes J.D.’s attempt to tack on “We hope!” is a lovely acknowledgement that their confidence isn’t a guarantee, but is necessary as a humane gesture of solidarity.) Structurally, it’s surprising and wonderful that the script allows Patti a real point of view, transforming her part from the pair of Tin Pan Alley-colored glasses through which we see the regular cast to a character whose feelings truly drive the action. That moment of delight when she belts out “Shut your cakehole, Mary Beth!” is, as Genevieve points out, a turning point—and one that sets this musical episode apart from everything else we’ve watched for this round of the Roundtable.

Noel Murray: I’m with Donna: I love this episode, and while I remember at the time thinking it was an anomaly in the middle of an otherwise sputtering Scrubs season, I now wonder if I’d like season six better, especially given that I was a big fan of the show’s last proper season (and its abortive reboot, for that matter). My one complaint about “My Musical” is that it falls into the trap that a lot of musical episodes of long-running TV shows do, often using the songs primarily to re-emphasize familiar character traits, rather than to illuminate them in a new way. On the other hand, that’s kind of the essence of Scrubs’ comedy: the reiteration of the same basic jokes, with only small moments of change sprinkled in for poignancy.

You guys have already hit what I consider to be the high points, but I want to follow up on what Donna wrote about the camera angles and choreography, which for me are what set this episode apart from other TV musicals. (Ahem, 7th Heaven.) There’s a real effort here to adhere to the rules of the plot, which means that nobody sings unless they’re in the room with the patient, and the color keeps rising and fading in accordance with the music, like in Lars Von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark. Plus, people dance in unison! And there are big flourishes at the end of songs! It’s just all so damned ingratiating.

Phil Dyess-Nugent: I’m afraid I’m one of those Grinches who don’t respond to Bill Lawrence’s shows. When his fans talk about what they love about Scrubs and Cougar Town, they sound as if they’d be right in my wheelhouse—pure, relaxed silliness, just a bunch of funny people being funny together, great hang-out television—but when I look at them with my own sensory apparatuses, they feel arch and overly self-impressed. Plus, Lawrence has a habit of casting his shows with people I’d rather not be watching. (When it comes to Zach Braff, I’m a straight-up hater. I know that’s so 2004, but I don’t know what he’s done since then that might make me change my opinion, aside from virtually disappearing from the scene, which was nice of him.)

The first few minutes here—before the musical theme kicks in—had me grinding my teeth as usual, but things really pick up once the gimmick is deployed. What follows is actually nice enough to make me think that the musical form, which is often thought of as a daring, precarious stretch, is actually pretty forgiving. In this case, it stylizes the action (and, in a few places, the bad jokes and forced attempts at humor and the cartoon mugging) by making it seem part of a borrowed style. (Although the musical episode of 7th Heaven wasn’t half as deft, the format there worked to make the squeaky-clean abstinence talk go down easier, at least for me. In a straight drama, that stuff would have had me barfing. Thanks to the singing and sort-of dancing, it felt like some weird camp homage to Joe Pasternak.) A couple of people are more fun in this episode than I remember them being in any other Scrubs I’ve seen, especially Judy Reyes, who runs off with my favorite number, her jaded lovers’ duet with Donald Faison. I did test the limits of professional critical conduct by “accidentally” leaning on the fast-forward button for most of the 40 or 50 seconds where they’re singing about stool samples, and I’d still love to see Zach Braff get torn apart by wild animals sometime. But most of this is quite pleasant.

Erik Adams: J.D. begins the episode’s concluding voiceover with “In musicals, there’s always a happy ending,” suggesting that Dr. Dorian hasn’t seen much of “My Musical”’s source material. I’ve never seen Les Miz, either, but I’ve hung around enough theater geeks and read enough about the French Revolution to know that it doesn’t end with Jean Valjean and Fantine riding into the sunset in a flying convertible. But a tragic conclusion would’ve given a definitive answer to the question Ryan poses above: If Patti dies, the music truly is a crutch, an emotionally manipulative way of lending deeper meaning to the death of a one-off character, a storytelling move Scrubs didn’t shy away from, occasionally exploiting it for unearned tears. “My Musical” is more in the “celebrate life” mold of Rent, so it’s only fitting that Patti makes it out of this one alive, humming happily as J.D.’s voice ties up all the thematic threads.

Perhaps the happy ending of “My Musical” is easier to swallow when you look at it through the additional filter that plopped over my eyes in the middle of “Welcome To Sacred Heart”: This is a Muppet production performed by people rather than puppets, with “Welcome To Sacred Heart” filling the same winking-at-studio-musical-convention role as “Hey A Movie!” from The Great Muppet Caper. That POV works wonders on the one-joke nature of Sacred Heart staffers like The Todd and Ted—even Dr. Cox is essentially Statler and Waldorf in a single body. It also plays to the strengths of the Avenue Q guys, who got to manipulate the pre-existing Scrubs personas like the felt-and-fur characters of their name-making show, running them through high-energy, wordplay-heavy production numbers that land because it’s only slightly out of the ordinary to hear Scrubs characters rhyme “miss you Carla” with “tissue Carla.” And consider this: If Count Von Count had suddenly replaced Ken Jenkins midway through “My Musical,” would anyone have noticed?

Todd VanDerWerff: Good Lord, Phil! Do you like anything?!

That said, I’m a Scrubs fan, but I hold the musical episode at arm’s length. I’ll agree with you all that its sense of craft highlights why this was a good show and, say, 7th Heaven was… not, but I also feel like this episode misses the mark that something like Buffy’s “Once More With Feeling” hits for me, even though I think the songs here are better (or at least more tuneful) than those Joss Whedon came up with. What I ultimately realized was that this came from a period in Scrubs history when the characters had gradually gotten more and more cartoonish, when the show was running them through the same four or five jokes it had established would work, and when it had stranded J.D. in the middle of an interminable plot about his former girlfriend being pregnant with his child. This may sound weird coming from someone who liked Community a whole bunch, but I rarely like my television to flatter me. I like when I have to work a little bit for my enjoyment, and somewhere around the midpoint of its run, Scrubs turned into a show that was all about entertaining the shit out of the audience with jokes that had been mainstays of the show’s run. One of the reasons its first three seasons (and its eighth, weirdly) were so good was because they took gigantic chances with the stories they told, with the form of the show, and even with the tonal shifts that Donna describes above. As the show settled into a very comfortable mid-period (and eventually a pretty bad seventh season), it did less and less of this, instead choosing to keep giving the audience what it wanted, when it wanted it. “Once More With Feeling” is about taking things away. “My Musical” is very much about bestowing gifts. (Come to think of it, this roughly describes my relationship with Parks And Recreation, too.)

So “My Musical” is simply a bunch of numbers that lean heavily on the jokes and tropes the show had established to that point. “Guy Love” is about the super-close, perhaps-too-close-for-heterosexual-comfort relationship between J.D. and Turk, a frequent source of gags. “The Rant Song” is, well, a rant, complete with yet another reminiscence about why the Janitor hates J.D. “Friends Forever” is basically the show making fun of itself for how its characters always overcome their differences. And so on. I’ll agree the closing number is pretty great, I like the sheer scale of “Welcome To Sacred Heart,” and I can agree the songs are well-crafted and frequently funny. But it’s as if the show is simply giving me stuff it knows I want, and I always bristle a bit at that approach. What’s daring about “My Musical” is all in the form and very rarely in the storytelling, and that ultimately pushes me a tiny bit away from it, even if it’s a highlight in a seriously messy season of television. I like it, but I’d never put it near my list of 10 great Scrubs episodes.

Stray observations:

This doesn’t belong above, but I’m curious about what everyone’s favorite song was. Despite what I describe above, I’m more likely that not to listen to Cox’s Gilbert and Sullivan-inspired “The Rant Song.” Given Cox’s rants, it’s the perfect musical choice for his character, and also allows Neil Flynn’s Janitor to demonstrate that he hasn’t forgotten about the penny incident from the show’s pilot. [RM]

Turk’s dance on the reception desk during “Gonna Miss You, Carla” never fails to make me laugh. [RM]

I haven’t watched Scrubs since its first run—well, one of its first runs—so my memory of this episode had gotten a little blurry, causing me to conflate it with the season-two episode “My Philosophy,” which featured one of Scrubs’ first fully realized musical numbers, “Waiting For My Real Life To Begin.” While I understand and appreciate why something as one-off as “My Musical” didn’t end with D’Abruzzo’s character dying, I keep thinking how much I would have liked to hear D’Abruzzo deliver that as the closing number. [GK]

I don’t think I realized just how much Bill Lawrence shows are for me until Cougar Town was faced with possible cancellation last year, and I had to face the bleak prospect of life without the Cul-de-Sac Crew. Although the show struggled a bit to find its footing after its rescue by TBS, late episodes this season have been killing it. My favorite new running gag: Bobby has named his dry-docked boat/home the Sea Story. “We spend more time in the Sea Story than anyone!” Travis comments. “Yep, nothing much happens in the Sea Story, but we sure have fun,” Bobby sighs. “We’re in the Sea Story right now!” Andy enthuses. [DB]

One of the reasons the 7th Heaven musical is so excruciating is that it never feels like we’re in the hands of people who know what they are doing, or are even willing to bluff that they do. Here, the moment Kelso launches into his Robert Preston impersonation in “Welcome To Sacred Heart,” we can relax into the premise, because it’s clear that professionals are running this show. [DB]

The one time I laughed out loud was at something that I’m not sure was meant to be funny: The doctors are all singing at the patient, about how everything’s going to be okay, and then the image fades to her in bed with her head shaved, with a “Cancel Christmas!” expression on her face. They’re still reassuring her in song, but it’s obvious that in the next shot, they’ll be pulling the covers over her face. Except that doesn’t happen—everything really does turn out okay. I guess that Scrubs wouldn’t be the show everyone signed on for if it had turned that dark, but I’m sorry it didn’t. I think they missed a chance to get for a blacker tone than usual, in an episode where, because of the “special, experimental episode” pass, they could have gotten away with it. [PDN]

I didn’t really keep up with this show much past its first season, and my memory of what I did see of it is spotty, so I’m genuinely curious: Was there a plot point to the uncharacteristically bright, citrusy hues of John C. McGinley’s hair? [PDN]

The last word from my corner rightly belongs to my wife, who is out there on the front lines every day, working her ass off at the hospital so that I can sit at home pretending to be a writer, and who is always lots of fun to watch hospital shows with. When the regulars are crooning “Everything’s okay!” at the foot of what I mistakenly took for the woman’s deathbed, my wife snorted, “On your first day in medical school, they hammer it in that you never sing that to a patient!” [PDN]

Neil Flynn’s expressions throughout “The Rant Song” provide hard evidence that his mug is one of the hardest-working actors on TV today. [EA] 

Speaking of nice Scrubs musical moments, I always liked the way the show threaded Colin Hay throughout its second season. It wouldn't have counted for this Roundtable (since it’s a non-regular singing), but his use in the second-season première is worth linking to, at least. [TV]

Next week: The readers have spoken! You have chosen, for our final installment of this TV Roundtable, the Futurama episode “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings,” which is available on Netflix. And after that, we'll begin a new theme with an episode that provides a suitably subtle transition.

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