“My Best Friend’s Mistake” (season 1, episode 3; originally aired Oct. 9, 2001)
There was no question that J.D. and Elliot were set up as a romantic couple in Scrubs’ pilot. With Turk paired off with Carla, J.D. and Elliot are the only two interns remaining, and their interaction in “My First Day” was built around their sexual tension being mixed with elements of competition and adjusting to life as an intern.
“My Best Friend’s Mistake” decides to confront their relationship directly for the first time—albeit not, of course, the last time—in an indirect fashion, even if that sentence doesn’t particularly make any sense out of context. By placing a 48-hour clock on J.D. and Elliot’s consummation of a near kiss on a romantic, bedpan-lit Friday evening round, the episode is allowed to move on with a traditional A/B storyline structure without feeling as though J.D. and Elliot’s relationship is threatening to overshadow it. The timer comes up only on occasion, and always at times when J.D. gets pulled away to another task, offering a good example of how personal relationships can be built as threads through more episodic storylines as opposed to entirely overwhelming the larger narrative. And yes, it’s possible there’s an implicit criticism of future seasons in that sentence.
On some level, “My Best Friend’s Mistake” repeats patterns we saw in the first two episodes (along with repeating Erasure’s “A Little Respect” as a musical signature to tie the whole thing together), but they’re more clearly integrated into both the larger ensemble and the series’ episodic structure. Dr. Cox is still the reluctant mentor figure who can’t understand why anyone would think he’s a mentor figure, but this time it’s Elliot and not J.D. who is both the subject of his rage and the beneficiary of his wisdom (as reluctant as it might be). J.D. and Turk are still feeling out how their relationship has been changed by Turk’s relationship with Carla, but this time that runs parallel with questions of whether Turk was negligent in closing up his first patient.
Neither storyline ends anywhere particularly exciting, although it’s interesting to look back at the shading of J.D. and Turk’s relationship here. When considering the series broadly, their “bromance” is an unbridled passion that overflows into everything they do, on some level overshadowing the other relationships in their lives (especially in the show’s sillier seasons that indulged in this kind of tone more often). Here, however, their relationship is almost something that they both find uncomfortable when in the hospital setting: They both agree that their “Part A!” moment is an embarrassment, while Turk is completely weirded out by J.D.’s “I miss you so much it hurts sometimes.” Turk even ends the episode by ribbing him about it, something that close friends would do but not something that feels so disconnected from reality. As much as I may have been charmed by elements of their relationship in later seasons, there’s a restraint here that’s sort of refreshing, which keeps their relationship grounded. The actual medical storyline they’re involved in isn’t much outside of introducing the potential consequences of small mistakes (which could here be attributed to J.D.’s ability to get lost in his own head, given that it’s his insulin shot that does the damage to their diabetic patient), but I enjoy these versions of the characters.
Of course, speaking of versions, this feels like the point where neurotic, insecure Elliot starts to emerge more readily. There’s still more confidence than we’ll see in later seasons, and it’s sort of similar to her inability to not talk back to Carla in “My Mentor,” but there’s something more awkward about the character’s attempt to overcome Dr. Kelso’s gendered language. That Elliot is concerned about the terms is something she’d probably be less concerned with in later seasons, but the way she’s concerned about it, and how she needs someone to talk to about it, is moving into a more neurotic space. There’s an inherent cluelessness to Elliot’s willingness to hear Dr. Cox’s sarcasm as the advice of a “groovy guidance counselor,” which gives McGinley some great monologues and gives Sarah Chalke another opportunity to fine tune Elliot’s evolving characteristics.
“My Best Friend’s Mistake,” on the whole, is basically a case of fine tuning: The structure is becoming more formed, the character relationships are both evolving and expanding, and the show is reaching the point where it can make a more definitive statement of what Scrubs will become in the future.
“My Old Lady” (season 1, episode 4; originally aired Oct. 16, 2001)
Hospitals are a dramatic space. They are a space where people die, a space where people suffer, and a space in which the fragility of life (as cliché as that might sound) is constantly on display.
This is not to suggest that there is no comedy in hospitals, or that there shouldn’t be comedy in hospitals. Part of the challenge of working in a hospital, I imagine, is finding the humor within the dramatic, and finding a way to cherish small moments of levity within what can be a depressing reality. However, the medical profession is an inherently dramatic one, and a show dealing with young doctors adjusting to their new lives as interns will inevitably have to confront their response to losing a patient.
Scrubs built this idea into its pilot, having J.D.’s patient die while he wasn’t present, but we hadn’t spent any considerable time with that patient. That patient didn’t have a granddaughter, or a father, or a son, and the only thing we knew about him was that he had bad gas. What happens when the patient you lose is someone with whom you have developed a relationship, and someone whose medical narrative has become interconnected with your own?
“My Old Lady” would not exist if NBC had its way—on the audio commentary for the episode, Bill Lawrence discusses how the network didn’t want him to tell a story this dramatic so early, but he ultimately fought for it since this was the show he wanted to make. To be clear, NBC was fine with the show dealing with some dramatic elements, but the episode’s conclusion was problematic for the network: Why couldn’t two of the patients be smiling joyfully with their family members after their lives were saved by our heroic doctors? Why couldn’t the episode-opening conceit that one out of every three patients admitted to a hospital will die be enough of a lesson?
If this were the case, however, “My Old Lady” would say something about a single character instead of saying something about the show as a whole. For example: If only Mrs. Tanner passed away, this would still be an incredibly important episode for J.D., but the other characters would be isolated from that experience. I’d argue that this would still be a very strong episode if only one patient had died (especially if that patient was Kathryn Joosten’s Mrs. Tanner), but I would suggest it would be far less important were this the case. By undermining the structure of Matt Tarses’ script, which has you anticipating the reveal of which patient will live, the episode’s conclusion makes it clear that Scrubs is unafraid to confront the realities of working in, and setting a comedy within, a hospital.
While they are certainly less substantial than the eponymous storyline, Turk and Elliot’s patients are nonetheless a key part of the episode’s moral. Say what you will about Scrubs’ moralizing, but early on it serves an important role in laying out the show’s setting and characters, and here beautifully captures the lessons being learned from losing your first major patient, lessons that contribute to the show’s portrait of young doctors still sketching out what kind of doctor (and person) they’re going to be.
For Turk, the episode is about learning the value of connecting with your patients even when you’re just the dude who’s going to cut them up, as “Hernia Patient” (Travis Wester) becomes David and clinical conversations held in front of the patient give way to hallway wheelchair bowling sessions. What I particularly like about this storyline is how the fear that emerges following the discovery of David’s tumor is translated into their more casual relationship. The closer you get to your patient, the more difficult it can be when bad news emerges, and David’s desire for Turk to level with him really strikes a chord. As much as it hurts Turk to eventually lose someone to whom he had grown close, he was also there for David at a time when he was scared and needed both a friend and a doctor, an important lesson the show would explore more directly when actual friends become patients in subsequent seasons.
For Elliot, meanwhile, it’s a lesson about trusting your instincts and being willing to make decisions when you know that someone might die. That scene at the vending machine is maybe a bit on-the-nose with this theme, but I think we know enough about Elliot now to know that she would vocalize her dilemma in that fashion. It would have still been an important lesson for Elliot if Mrs. Guerrero had lived, but it’s more meaningful to learn that just because a patient dies doesn’t mean you did something wrong. That the storyline doubles as a chance to build Elliot and Carla’s friendship, which to this point has been a major point of contention, is an added bonus. I wouldn’t have pegged this as a key episode for either character simply reflecting back on it, but this is really the start of a friendship that will carry through until the eighth season (especially since the show so rarely suggested that they had other friends they spent time with regularly).
And yet, at the end of the day, this episode belongs to J.D. and his relationship with Mrs. Tanner, perhaps the show’s most memorable patient. Admittedly, some of this has to do with some intertextual bleed-through from Joosten’s time as Mrs. Landingham on The West Wing, but that doesn’t change what is an incredibly affecting storyline. If Turk and Elliot’s patients teach them lessons about being a doctor, J.D. learns a lesson about what happens when you’re effectively told that your services aren’t needed anymore. While Turk and Elliot did everything they could do, J.D. did everything he was told to do, and that he couldn’t go any further meant watching a feisty and “neat” old lady die in front of him.
It’s one of the show’s most effective (and affective) storylines in part because it’s allowed to be comic despite largely presenting as a dramatic storyline. It features a somewhat substantial number of J.D.’s fantasies: You have Mrs. Tanner’s jailbreak escape from the hospital, you have J.D. smashing her granddaughter’s face into her cake, and you have the ton of bricks falling from the ceiling. And yet, what resonates about the storyline is J.D. sitting against the wall with his pad of paper, listing off things people should do before they die and hoping that he’ll find the answer which will convince her to extend her life with dialysis. Although J.D. doesn’t understand her decision, his response is never indignant or dismissive: He thinks that it is his job as a doctor to convince her to live not because she is morally wrong to believe otherwise, but rather because he is too scared to accept the result if he is unsuccessful in changing her mind.
It’s a truly great performance from Braff, and makes me wish that the show had gotten Emmy attention earlier in its existence so that he could have been recognized for his subtle work here instead of for what the character became in later seasons (which I was generally okay with, but which was far less interesting than what we see here). Joosten, meanwhile, crafts a suitably fearless performance, completely nailing the absurdity of the jailbreak while slipping into a comfortable and natural rhythm with Braff throughout the rest of the episode. Her death isn’t a tragedy, at least as far as I would generally use the term, but it resonates even after only being introduced to the character twenty minutes earlier.
The show would return to this well in future seasons with considerable success, but those episodes are built on the foundation that “My Old Lady” established. Scrubs’ willingness to be dramatic is not particularly unique for television comedies, but that it committed to it this early (against the network’s instincts) and that it would commit to it as often as it did in subsequent seasons is quite distinctive within the past decade. While a broadly comic show like Community can transition into a dramatic space (like, for example, at the end of “Mixology Certification”), the dramatic is not necessarily a part of its most basic DNA. With Scrubs, “My Old Lady” would become the standard against which the series’ standout episodes would be judged throughout its entire run, an expectation that would drive the show to some of its finest episodes and that would make its creative decline in later seasons all that more apparent.
But for now, in isolation, “My Old Lady” is just a really fantastic episode of television.
- Special mention has to go to Marc Buckland’s Emmy-nominated direction of “My Old Lady,” which is in some ways as foundational in terms of visuals as it is in terms of narrative.
- I enjoy that J.D.’s fantasy about what would happen if he kissed Elliot begins with marriage and then moves onto sex/threesome. Some keen insight into the nuance of his fantasies.
- The pickup basketball game in “My Best Friend’s Mistake” is sort of gratuitous, but I love Becky’s dumpster rage after losing—makes me laugh every time.
- As Lawrence points out on the commentaries, this was the period in which the Janitor only ever interacted with J.D., but there’s some nice moments spread across the two episodes to draw out that feud. The miming in “My Old Lady” is particularly fun.
- The Weakest Link joke in “My Best Friend’s Mistake” completely dates the show, but Kelso’s lengthy laugh suggests it was already dated/lame at the time, which helps position it for viewers in 2011, provided those viewers still remember that The Weakest Link was a thing that existed. The self-reflexivity of Turk’s overuse of the “_______ called” joke structure in “My Old Lady” works in a similar fashion.
- While it’s post-Shrek, “My Old Lady” is still an early-ish pop culture use of “Hallelujah,” relative to the recent explosion of over-exposure. Still, it’s amazing how something can be transformed into a cliché in retrospect.
- According to Lawrence (not to keep repeating the commentary track for those watching along on DVD) the three stories in “My Old Lady” were all based on real patients, in case you were wondering.
- I don't know about any of you, but “A Little Respect” is still in my head, although I’ve watched “My Best Friend's Mistake” about three times over the course of the past week.
- SPOILER ALERT [Since I know some of you last week suggested you were watching for the first time]: As much as I think the entire sequence leading up to and including the “Book Of Love” fantasy in “My Finale” is tremendous, I think the moment it really sunk in was Mrs. Tanner’s appearance.
- “Take your blah blah to the blahblahologist.”
- “Just tell him like you feel without sounding like a girl for once” (J.D. would not be following this advice in the future).
- “I like to use sex as an icebreaker.”
Next week: We explore the contents of the ass box, and deal with the introduction of a surprisingly youthful board member.