These episodes air tonight on ABC, 9pm EST/8pm CST
Since it premiered right on through to its bittersweet coulda-been-the-series finale, I've always loved Scrubs and held a huge amount of respect for Bill Lawrence, its creator. The show not only did its darndest to accurately reflect what it's like to rise the ranks at a hospital—and by all accounts, it succeeded—but it set out to blend its unabashedly goofy sense of humor with fully realized plot and character development. It's kinda hack to say, but it was a comedy with heart (Sacred Heart… nailed it!). I see the show as a huge contributor to the recent single-camera comedy craze, especially shows like 30 Rock that use the format's almost cinematic quality to leap off into fantasy land every once in a while. Even Scrubs' simple character dynamics crop up all the time nowadays: Everyone on Scrubs, even the diabolical Dr. Kelso, genuinely likes each other; think about how much better 30 Rock got once Jack and Liz became buds, and how unfun The Office would be if Michael Scott had ill wishes.
Thinking back, what I liked most about Scrubs was JD—not so much Zach Braff or anything specific JD did, but his presence as the center of the show's events (though, I should say, I do like Braff in that role). JD saw the weirdness around him, and filtered that weirdness for the audience. Every good comedy needs a straight man to keep track of the crazies. And as the show went on, we learned a lot more about JD's character, and we realized he can't always be impartial. We were along for the ride, as he was—like Michael Bluth on Arrested Development. My least favorite parts of Scrubs came in the later seasons, before it made the jump to ABC for its final JD-centric season and underwent a bit of a creative resurgence. In those, JD was no longer removed from any of the action, but instead started playing almost exclusively the caricature-y elements of his character. Thought those "Guy Love" jokes were funny? Here's JD with a bajillion more. Everything else about the Scrubs formula remained the same, but something felt off.
So going into this ninth season of Scrubs, I wasn't afraid of the show's prospects minus Zach Braff as a regular character. I was more concerned that Scrubs would forego drawing us into its world, as it did in early seasons, in favor of just the silliness. JD was a grounding force before; it needed another one.
And while these first two new Scrubs episodes are far from dead-on, Lawrence made some smart decisions when rejiggering the structure for this next go-round. For starters, he moved the action out of the hospital and into the classroom—he has it explained right away that Sacred Heart was moved to be closer to the its teaching campus. There's still lots of hospital stuff, but we also get the chance to see stalwarts like Cox, Turk, and Kelso giving lectures as well as diagnoses. The show has also introduced a new cast of students, and kept around Denise, by far the best of last year's newbies, as a TA. It's the best move Lawrence had: Introduce us to the struggles of these new people, with familiar faces there to support and provide some occasional Scrubs-like levity.
But at least right now, the automatic comparison between the old and new guard isn't doing the show any favors. The show is clearly setting up Lucy, a blond med student, to be the new JD, and in many ways she fills the same role. The first of these two premier episodes finds Lucy wide-eyed on her first day of class, hoping beyond home to make friends and find some teacher to be her mentor. She's also supremely paranoid about what other people think of her. So it's not surprising that JD, on the prowl for a student of his own to mold in his image, finds Lucy and it's a match made in JD's fantasies. We go inside her head as we've always done with JD, and walk through what she experiences in the second episode—she decides to help a junkie patient by raising money to send him to rehab, hoping to prove Cox's pessimism wrong that the guy can change at all. But Lucy can't capture the sort of light-hearted sappiness that JD uses when the show turns to these "deeper truth" moments, and her sense of humor feels really inhibited so far. She has some really neurotic moments in these episodes, but while Sarah Chalke always had a breeziness with making herself look ridiculous as Elliot in similar situations, Lucy has a ways to go.
The other new people fare a little better, though their screen time is slight. Cole is the spoiled one of the bunch—his dad owns the hospital—and gets some pathetically over-the-top pick-up attempts out on the girls (what's worse than having your mom help?), but it's a bit distracting to think that this pretty one-note guy might be in the core rotation. The most promising one is Drew, who dropped out of med school so long ago and is only now returning. After he appears as mostly a blur in the first episode—a punching bag for jokes about being too old—he gets his due in episode two, struggling when Cox decides to christen him the number one student with a sign he has to have on at all times, and photograph himself every 10 minutes wearing. Meanwhile, he and Denise are terrified that they're developing feelings for each other, as they're two of the most self-important people in the place. In Drew, Lawrence has found a guy who can ask himself the question Scrubs loves to answer: Why do you want to be a doctor?
In this retooling of the series, Lawrence gets to go bigger, exploring what it is about medicine that fascinates these people, kicks their asses, and keeps them coming back for more—both as doctors and teachers. It's got the same shamelessly silly sense of humor (like JD deciding to hold his lecture outside and getting stuck in a tree, or the Janitor learning JD wasn't ever returning and immediately quitting), and though the new show seems to lack a core, it's got a lot of options.
- JD sure has a lot of ties.
- Notice the episodes are now named "Our blah blah blah" instead of "My." Perhaps it's taking a shared focal approach?
- One reason I really like Lawrence, reiterated: He really stayed true to the medical aspects of the show. He waited until an actual case cropped up about a woman who heard people singing, then turned it into a musical episode. Not before that. I'm willing to give him a shot with this.