“My Bed Banter & Beyond” (season 1, episode 15; originally aired 02/26/2002)
I have a great deal of appreciation for NBC’s Community, but I feel the show has helped perpetuate the notion that a sitcom is only daring or innovative or simply great when it is throwing out the book entirely. This is not to suggest that the show does not deserve its reputation as one of the most adventurous sitcoms on television at the moment, but it’s instead an attempt to expand our understanding of innovation beyond the complete narrative restructuring central to episodes like “Critical Film Studies” or “Remedial Chaos Theory.”
I raise this point because “My Bed Banter & Beyond” is an episode that stands out as “special” on the surface, potentially obscuring its more subtle innovations (which I’d argue are far more important) that may not seem quite so monumental. Yes, the episode features a narrative which constantly shifts between a single day and the weeks that followed, a narrative enabled by the “Supersized” episode length introduced by Jeff Zucker as a clever scheduling ploy, which immediately marks the episode as different from those which surround it. However, its “daring” nature has less to do with how its narrative is structured and much more to do with why its narrative is structured this way, a somewhat fine distinction that I nonetheless feel is important to understanding why Scrubs — and, on some level, sitcoms in general — are worth considering as something more than a vehicle for comedy.
“My Bed Banter & Beyond” is undoubtedly a turning point for the series, the moment where the big picture becomes a chief focus for the first time. While the show has consistently explored particular themes, and has of course been building various character relationships, any sort of seriality has been left largely as subtext. In particular, Elliot and J.D.’s sexual tension was quite directly steered towards the friend zone just a few episodes in, a seemingly conscious decision to shelve that particular story idea until the time was right. What followed was an exploration of the show’s formula, the “A-B-C Janitor” structure emerging as the dominant mode of storytelling and the characters adjusting — more than “developing” — to fit with the show that the writers wanted to make going forward.
When we think about serialization, we often think of “going forward,” implying a long-term strategy mapped out by the showrunners that will run into future, hypothetical seasons. However, while that is how serialized storytelling tends to manifest within television, the function of serialization is to provide a clear sense of temporality, of time passing and characters changing. “My Bed Banter & Beyond” does all of this in a single episode, using the principles of serialization to rush through an inevitable story development and transforming it into a formative moment for the young series.
It’s an episode that wouldn’t be possible, or at least not as effective, were it not for Jeff Zucker’s brilliant decision to render it impossible to syndicate. Zucker’s “Supersized” episode strategy was a brilliant bit of scheduling tomfoolery when it was first introduced, as it meant that NBC’s highest-rated shows would all run ten minutes into the shows airing on other networks (a practice which has largely been discontinued, but remains influential in the decision for various hit shows to run a minute or so into the next timeslot). The added running time means the episode can’t run in a traditional syndication slot (meaning a pivotal episode would be missed by those watching on Comedy Central or the like), but it also means that the writers had more time to pull these two narratives together, and more time to tell what is probably a season’s worth of stories.
“My Bed Banter & Beyond” tells one story through two narratives, linking the first blissful day of J.D. and Elliot’s relationship with the gradual unraveling of that relationship amidst the day-to-day chaos of work and, well, life. The temporal shifts are certainly not something you normally see in a sitcom (although we could surely think of some examples), and the decision to cram an entire relationship into a single episode is definitely ballsy for the series. However, at the same time, the episode relies on some pretty standard television tropes in telling its story: J.D. and Elliot’s post-coital conversations continue a long tradition of bedroom chatter, while the “Doctors are forced to speak to a Psychologist” is a well-worn medical series trope designed to offer insight into what it’s like to work in medicine. And while the numerous vignettes that offer a glimpse into their disintegrating relationship are unique in their chronology, they are nonetheless consistent with the kinds of day-to-day medical scenarios the show has drawn on to this point.
I make these distinctions to try to establish why I feel “My Bed Banter & Beyond” is not necessarily a “high concept” episode, nor does it have to be. Without entirely reinventing the wheel, the episode finds a way to handle a potentially challenging storyline simply by being ballsy enough to deal with it in one fell swoop. Nothing about what happens between J.D. and Elliot is particularly novel if it were spread over an entire season, and the devices central to the development of the episode are all fairly common on their own. Instead, what makes the episode special is the way they are all pulled together, an extremely sharp bit of writing that overcomes any concerns I had with Elliot’s motivations at the end of “My Drug Buddy.”
As noted, though, I do think that we need to move beyond viewing the episode purely as a case in which we marvel at its narrative difference. To entirely diffuse the sexual tension between two characters in a single episode, fast-forwarding through a relationship that could have lasted an entire season, is one of those moves that is enormously brave, and potentially quite reckless. Television history has seen several cases in which too much story is burned through in the first season as writers, not sure how much time they’ll have and writing on deadlines, cram in everything they’ve got to keep things moving (See: The first season of The O.C.). For Lawrence and the writers to so willfully give up this much potential story is a decisive yet potentially dangerous decision.
It’s also a decision that has been damaged by time, given that this was the first of many false starts in which J.D. and Elliot were put on hold before being resurrected soon after. I don’t know if the writers always knew they would be going back to this well, or if they truly thought this was going to be the end of any relationship between the two characters and simply felt the urge to return to the storyline in later seasons. However, the way J.D. and Elliot’s relationship flitted in and out of the series does ultimately make “My Bed Banter & Beyond” symptomatic of one of the macro-level concerns I have with the series.
None of this changes, however, how powerful the episode is in context. As the first season enters into its final act, a prominent relationship between two characters is irrevocably changed, a change that doesn’t just disappear the next week in “My Heavy Meddle.” Scrubs achieves this not by dramatically altering its formula, but rather by simultaneously speeding up and slowing down that formula, resulting in an isolated case of hyper-serialized storytelling which foregrounds both how time slows down in moments of great happiness and how time seems to go by so fast as those moments begin to slip away. Even though this ended up being only one installment of “J.D. and Elliot Relationship Disaster Theatre” out of several, and even though it relies primarily on tropes that are not uncommon for Scrubs and sitcoms in general, “My Bed Banter & Beyond” is an innovative and meaningful half-hour(-plus) of television which remains one of the cornerstone episodes of both the first season and the series as a whole, and stands as one of the most inventive and purposeful ways of dealing with a “Will They, Won’t They” relationship early on in a show’s life.
It’s also, perhaps more importantly, still a strong episode of Scrubs beneath all this talk of innovation. The psychologist interview trope might be an old one, but it offers some enjoyable insight into characters and their relationships (in particular Turk and Carla). More importantly, however, there’s an easy charm to J.D. and Elliot’s early flirtations that successfully transitions into something profoundly uncomfortable (without necessarily descending into cringe humor), a gradual unraveling of the light-hearted Scrubs aesthetic that feels earned even when rushed into a short period of time. It may be a “special” episode, and we might identify it as innovative, but we can also identify it as Scrubs, which is important for a show that is still developing its identity (although with “My Bed Banter & Beyond” we are nearing the point where the show fully comes into its own).
“My Heavy Meddle” (season 1, episode 16; originally aired 03/05/2002)
It seems tough to hold “My Heavy Meddle” to the same standards that I just discussed, given that it isn’t trying to do anything as ballsy as the episode that precedes it. However, I’d argue that this is about as smooth a dismount as you could manage after shaking things up, settling back into the status quo while acknowledging that just because there remains a surface-level normalcy does not mean that everything is necessarily okay.
I suggested above that J.D. and Elliot’s relationship has been “irrevocably changed,” and I guess that’s a bit of an exaggeration given that the two largely mend fences (as friends) by the time the next episode is over. However, while it is true that J.D. and Elliot bond over the loss of Mr. Peters, the rest of the episode makes an important point about what it means to be “normal.” It’s something that we all try to do after a major life change, whether it’s a breakup or someone’s death, but it’s also something that’s incredibly hard to attain. J.D. and Elliot bump into each other too often to try to claim that their “normal” hasn’t been changed, while Dr. Cox faces too much death and frustration within life at the hospital to get through every single day of the year without needing to release that frustration. We construct our own sense of normal by how we compartmentalize these situations, a normal that is always one broken pencil away from descending into chaos.
Scrubs, like all sitcoms that function episodically, needs “normal.” There needs to be a baseline that we can understand, a foundation on which new story developments or new characters can develop. What “My Heavy Meddle” establishes, however, is that this normal can change, both suddenly (in the case of Dr. Cox’s depressive episode, established as a regular occurrence) and gradually (in J.D. and Elliot’s transition from friends to exes over the course of an extended period, at least in story terms). Normal does not require story developments to be entirely forgotten, nor does it require for characters to entirely ignore any development they’ve had to this point. While Scrubs is not heavily serialized, and characters rarely mention past storylines (like Carla and Dr. Kelso ignoring their brief carpooling period when interacting here in regards to Carla’s attempts to enforce an advanced directive), “My Heavy Meddle” makes the argument that this doesn’t mean those storylines never happened; rather, it simply means that they aren’t necessarily part of the “normal” world that the series largely presents.
Scrubs is a show that has a large number of resources when it comes to normal given its hospital setting, here using case studies to give Turk and Elliot a reason to spend some time together (and force the issue of J.D. and Elliot’s détente of sorts) and advanced directives to give Carla an excuse to harmonize with Ted on an a capella rendition of “Talk Dirty to Me.” However, as the show’s characters become more well-established and as the serialized elements become more plentiful (if not necessarily more prominent), the show’s normal begins to expand, to the point where Dr. Cox’s late night kidnapping of a onesie-wearing J.D. doesn’t feel like some sort of huge departure: It’s in a bar we recognize, featuring characters we know, and with a hint of silliness that we’re starting to understand as one of the show’s signatures.
In truth, J.D. in a onesie doesn’t entirely work for me (stretching the character’s infantilism a bit too far for my liking, a problem that will crop up more as the show goes on), and part of me feels like “My Heavy Meddle” moves a bit too quickly to return J.D. and Elliot to a slightly modified version of their previous “friends with baggage” dynamic. However, there’s an honesty to the episode that strikes me, an acknowledgment that the show isn’t going to be entirely different in light of “My Bed Banter & Beyond.” It was inevitable that this would be a step back given what came before, but the episode effectively makes the argument that even when we come back the next day smiling as though nothing has happened, there was still something deeply meaningful about the emotional release that came the night before.
In other words, the show isn’t going to spend every single episode dwelling on J.D. and Elliot’s breakup, and they’re largely going to go back to being friends when we return next week, but this doesn’t mean that those events have been forgotten. It’s a simple yet effective statement of the principles of sitcom serialization, and a successful transition from a major event in the series’ narrative to its new, yet familiar, normal which will lead us towards the end of the season.
- Do you know what never stops being funny? Elliot falling off the desk catching the football. Does anyone have a GIF of that handy? That would be wonderful.
- J.D.’s list of things that are funny: Silly hats, Alf, anyone in a chicken suit, and oversized phones. (On a related note, I was huge into Alf when I was about 21 months old - I got a stuffed Alf for Christmas, and I was super excited about it if the video evidence is to be trusted. And yes, I've been watching home movies over the holidays.)
- John C. McGinley is particularly strong in both of these episodes, shouldering a lot of the thematic burden during the psychologist interviews and nicely depicting the character’s downward spiral in “My Heavy Meddle.” We’ll get some more with McGinley next week, but he’s definitely moving into MVP territory for the show at around this point in the season.
- Hey look, it’s television’s Masi Oka before he became a household name on Heroes (which I’m sure only ended well).
- “You look like you’ve got problems, you’re a girl…hence, girl problems.”
- “I think I left my wallet in my other onesie” (The onesie is still a bit much, but perhaps it was worth it for this line).
- “The horror.”
- I’m curious how others feel about the question of how the eventual fate of Elliot and J.D. (and the road they took to get there) changes your opinion of “My Bed Banter & Beyond” — my view is more or less spelled out above (that it does change my personal response to the episode, but does not necessarily devalue its impact at the time), but I’m interested in whether it has perhaps taken on a greater sense of meaning for others.