“My Case Study” (season 2, episodes 3; originally aired 10/10/2002)/“My Big Mouth” (season 2, episodes 4; originally aired 10/17/2002)
Given that various folks from the Scrubs Wiki are among the readers of these posts, there are moments where I feel like something of a fraud. While I am a fan of Scrubs, and have seen the first few seasons multiple times, my memory of the show is not exactly encyclopedic. In fact, if I’m being entirely honest, I had very little idea what this week’s episodes, “My Case Study” and “My Big Mouth,” were about before sitting down with my DVDs.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re weak episodes—in fact, I quite like both of them at the end of the day. However, they haven’t been burned into my brain as important episodes on the level of something like “My Old Lady,” ultimately falling into that collection of solid but unremarkable episodes that come with any mostly episodic sitcom. They are not part of some grand arc structure, they don’t introduce any incredibly important new characters, and the interpersonal relationships they explore are the same interpersonal relationships the show explored throughout its first season.
The latter point is particularly obvious when watching these episodes so recently after burning through the entire first season, but I don’t want to give the impression that I consider this to be a negative. While I would suggest that it keeps these early episodes from standing out as distinct entities, the parallels with earlier episodes allow for the subtle shifts in character dynamics to surface more readily. The stories may be similar, but where the stories end up feels more dynamic and “realistic” than what we saw in the first season. While we started to see these changes in “My Nightingale,” it becomes apparent in both “My Case Study” and “My Big Mouth” that the show is operating in a different gear even when telling the same types of stories it has told before.
You can see this particularly in J.D. and Elliot’s stories with Dr. Cox, which offer clear parallels to similar episodes in the first season. In “My Case Study,” we see yet another scenario in which J.D. finds himself trapped between what Kelso demands of him and what Cox expects of him. As a young doctor, you want the opportunity that presenting a case study at a conference would offer (which, yes, includes the myriad pleasures of Reno); however, as a young protégé to a doctor who refuses to buy into the system of networking and professional advancement, you feel pressure to scoff at such opportunities.
While this does repeat the oft-used scenario of J.D. being caught between a rock and a hard place, I think it’s important to note that Dr. Kelso’s position is not the inherently evil “Screw patients, it’s about making money!” angle we saw for most of the first season. Instead, it’s a real opportunity that J.D. would be silly to ignore, and which he is not a terrible person for wanting to pursue. What makes “My Case Study” work is that it allows him to come to this realization, rather than having to make a clear choice between the two. He doesn’t choose Dr. Kelso so much as he chooses himself, doing what he felt most comfortable with despite the fact that it would anger Dr. Cox. This leads to one of those moments where you’re reminded of how good Zach Braff can be in this role, standing up to Dr. Cox for the first time and arguing quite rightfully that not everyone has to follow Cox’s example of refusing to conform to professional expectations. It’s a moment of real agency for the character, and a more mature and developed resolution to this kind of storyline than what we saw during the first season.
Things are perhaps less different in Elliot’s storyline in “My Big Mouth”—while we have seen the character search for Dr. Cox’s respect and approval in the past (I’m thinking about the perfect game in “My Blind Date,” in particular), this is pretty much along the same lines in terms of Elliot sacrificing her personal dignity to prove herself. However, if J.D. learns how to stand up for himself, Elliot learns that she doesn’t necessarily need to prove herself to everyone around her. Her willingness to sacrifice her own emotions may win her favor with Dr. Cox, giving all of the bad news that he doesn’t want to give, but it doesn’t necessarily win his respect given the emotional toil she is purposefully bringing upon herself. Her lesson is that she may want Dr. Cox’s approval and a headstart in her career, but she shouldn’t be willing to sacrifice her own sanity to gain it — she can want to sit at the table with Dr. Cox, in other words, but she shouldn’t need to sit at the table with him if she instead wants to sit elsewhere. It’s not a meaningful story on the level of J.D.’s big stand, but it’s another variant on what we’ve seen before, a look into how the relationship between mentor and mentored alters with time and maturity; it’s the same scenario on the surface, perhaps, but there are subtleties the show is exploring here.
We can make a similar argument about other main storylines within these episodes. Carla and Elliot discovering that what brings them together are their respective insecurities in “My Case Study” feels like a variation on their struggles to be friends earlier in the series (like in “My Fifteen Minutes”), showing the evolution of a friendship that remains mostly indirect. Similarly, while Turk’s earlier feud with Bonnie resulted in Turk suggesting racial bias and having to suppress his frustration, in “My Big Mouth” we see him forced to confront the sexism of Dr. Kelso head-on when Turk is chosen to go to Mexico only because Bonnie is a woman, placing a greater burden on the character to do the right thing. Neither storyline is a dramatic shift on what we saw last season, and it’s hardly surprising that our heroes are able to reconcile or make the most rational, progressive decisions, but there’s a certain maturity here that I find very valuable. It doesn’t make this an entirely different show, but it demonstrates that the stakes are different now, and what “matters” is shifting.
Of course, for all that we might say about the show’s subtle and nuanced approach to storytelling, Scrubs is also at times a blissfully indulgent television show. This is no more obvious than in “My Case Study,” where Dr. Kelso’s one day of happiness—which the hospital employees believe results from his anniversary, the one time a year where he has sex—is brilliantly contrasted with the absolute terror of the day that follows. Ken Jenkins is great at playing the nuance in Dr. Kelso, don’t get me wrong, but those two sequences are an absolute delight in part because there is no nuance. Jenkins recorded a commentary track with Bill Lawrence for “My Case Study” for the second-season DVD set, and you can he got a kick out of these sequences, an enjoyment that translates onto the screen. I enjoy breaking down the thematic implications of Scrubs like the academic I am, but I also love to revel in the inventiveness of the show, and this is certainly a fine example of that.
Also, while we’re still not at the point where the Janitor’s singular obsession with J.D. is breaking enough for him to interact with other regulars, “My Big Mouth” nonetheless takes the important step of giving him a friend. Neil Flynn is an actor who thrives off of chemistry, something he has with Zach Braff (or, more broadly, with anything, including inanimate objects like the mop in “My Case Study”) but which he could also have with other actors. The introduction of Troy sets in motion the expansion of the Janitor’s world, and it adds some great dimension to the character — his stupid routine in “My Big Mouth” is fun on its own, but it’s better when he has to deal with a hapless tag-along. It’s a new dynamic that doesn’t abandon the basic comic function of the character, simply enhancing the madcap hijinks as opposed to moving them in a new direction.
These episodes don’t start a new story arc per se, with even some of the threads introduced in the first two episodes (like Jordan and Perry’s relationship) largely placed onto the back burner. Perhaps this is why I don’t have a strong memory of these episodes, although I don’t necessarily think we’re supposed to. While every sitcom has episodes that stand out as showcases, the episodes we turn to when we want to revisit the glory days, the episodes that aren’t as singular in their importance are often far more important in building and reinforcing our affection for the show. Scrubs’ second season makes its mark through its consistently strong storytelling, a trait that is on display in these episodes and a trait that I’m looking forward to following through the rest of the season.
- In combining these two episodes, the central story of “My Big Mouth” kind of fell by the wayside. In truth, I just don’t think there’s much to it: Carla confides in J.D., J.D. tells Turk, Carla gets upset. The show has done better storylines exploring the complexities of this friendship, and will continue to do so, but this particular one didn’t make much of an impact for me.
- I highly recommend Jenkins’ commentary with Lawrence on “My Case Study” — more than some other actors, Lawrence really gets some great reflections from Jenkins about his role, the industry in general, and other fun subjects.
- While we don’t actually see Jordan in the episode, one does wonder if Perry’s decision to take up the benefactor on her offer to put in a good word with hospital executives wasn’t at least partially influenced by the events of “My Nightingale.”
- Growing up I had some of those Simpsons guidebooks where they lay out all the pop-culture references, so I’m never sure when going back through The Simpsons if I actually got the pop culture references when they aired, or if I learned them through the books. I have the same feeling with something like the Raiders Of The Lost Ark-inspired sequence in “My Big Mouth” — I think I would have gotten it in 2002, but I’m certainly more attuned to it now that I’ve had a decade of pop-cultural education in the form of the Internet (as I was a late bloomer when it comes to pop culture).
- “He’s got so many dances” is a very fun bit, although it makes me wonder if there are fans of the show that think about it every time they see a sale on lotion. If so? Awesome.
- I am always curious whether certain fantasies are memorable for other fans of the show. Front butt was not a standout for me, for example, but I can see how it could be for others.
Next week: Identity crisis at Sacred Heart, and big brother comes to town.