“My Clean Break” (season 3, episode 11; originally aired 02/03/2004)
Throughout “My Clean Break,” Dr. Cox appears to be speaking to a therapist about his struggles adapting to his new role as residency director. Specifically, he worries that becoming a father and functioning in a more or less happy relationship with Jordan has removed his edge, an edge that he required when dealing with—read: intimidating—his residents. As the episode progresses, we see Cox struggle to get the residents to pay attention to his lessons, or even attend his lessons, and eventually he works out his anger with a tirade that isn’t as fun as his tirades normally are. Instead, it expresses real disappointment, and scares them enough to reassert his authority while nonetheless maintaining his happiness thanks to his new therapist: his son, Jack, who it turns out is a great listener.
I call attention to this storyline first because it’s almost entirely isolated from other characters: It’s just Cox talking to the audience, working through his feelings and reflecting on how his recent life changes have affected him. It’s far from the first use of therapy to force a character’s thoughts into the open, but it’s got a nice punchline and John C. McGinley does a good job selling it. However, it also offers a contrast to the other storylines dominating “My Clean Break” in two interesting and important ways that demonstrate the difference between the show’s regular characters and the deficiency of a temporary one.
Whereas Cox spends the episode talking mostly to himself, Elliot and J.D. are characters who work through their issues with other people. Both are insecure, unsure of themselves when it comes to moments like J.D. trying to break up with Danni or Elliot being attacked for her vampish appearance around the hospital. J.D. spends the entire episode talking through his Dannie problem with Turk, Carla, Jordan, and anyone else he can ask about it. Elliot, meanwhile, is attacked by Kelso, judged by other doctors, praised by the Janitor, and helped by J.D. and Carla as she works her way through another crisis of identity. While it would be hard to imagine a character like Cox working out his problems in such a public fashion, J.D. and Elliot are the kind of people who need those support systems to function—look how J.D., in a tense moment with Danni as she presumes they’ll move in together, actually has an out-of-body experience just to be able to escape to talk things through with Turk.
The difference between the two characters is that J.D.’s problem is considerably less sympathetic than Elliot’s. Elliot’s story is one of identity, and of struggling at the half-way mark of the season to reconcile “New Elliot” with her job. There’s some problematic gender politics in J.D.’s rundown of how women look in hospitals, albeit politics he acknowledges as problematic as he explains them, but it’s probably a realistic portrayal of how a real world hospital would react to your typical TV doctor strutting through the door. That being said, the show has done a good job of framing Elliot’s look as character-driven, her hair and makeup a source of self-esteem rather than vanity. Even though she eventually agrees to tone it down, it’s based on self-reflection and not an edict from a superior or based on the judgment of others, and a nice moment for the character to reclaim—or reclaim her reclamation of—her femininity on her own terms.
J.D., meanwhile, is just bad at breaking up with women he has no feelings for. The writers are clearly trying to spin Danni off into something productive here, shifting focus from their relationship to the fact that J.D. is still hung up on Elliot (which he proves by offering to assist Elliot when he says he has no time to talk to Danni), and it culminates in J.D. breaking up with Danni and celebrating his achievement as she sadly walks away. It’s a scene that doesn’t work for two reasons, the first being that it’s difficult to celebrate J.D. being that insufferable, further emphasizing that “struggling to break up with women” is not the same level of identity crisis as Elliot’s concerns. The second, however, is that I can’t really get indignant about J.D. disrespecting Danni when I have no sense of who she is. Although the writers try to revive her similarities with J.D. by having her dress up Rowdy, I have no idea why she does anything, or who she is, or who she wants to be. While Cox spends the episode talking to himself, and it works because the character has been developed enough to sustain such close focus, Scrubs barely spends thirty seconds from Danni’s point-of-view, which makes her departure as clean a break as you could imagine for a multi-episode love interest.
“My Catalyst” (season 3, episode 12; originally aired 02/10/2004)
I was talking with a friend the other day about Scrubs, and she referred to the show as “bro-heavy.” It’s something I’ve always known about the show, but it came further into focus when revisiting “My Catalyst.” The episode is an investigation of what it means to have a mentor, and what it means to be a mentor, and it’s also an episode that focuses exclusively on four male characters—J.D., Turk, Cox, and the newly arrived Dr. Kevin Casey (Michael J. Fox)—navigating this dynamic. Elliot is relegated to the occasional banter with Turk and some fangirling over Casey, while Carla and Jordan are used primarily to help Cox confront his feud with Casey. Although the show has occasionally confronted Elliot’s relationship with her superiors or Carla’s issues with authority, they are never really allowed access to the mentorship narrative central to J.D.’s—and thus the series’—development, and here extended to Turk based on Casey’s status as both an attending and a surgeon.
Casey is a fascinating character, one that could have easily come across as a cliché if not for Fox’s performance. It’s a characters that comments on Fox’s real-life battle with Parkinson’s disease—which led him to step away from acting—without referencing it directly, building a character who must own his personal burdens in order to function as part of society. The show makes some jokes about his O.C.D., but they never seem at the expense of the character: Casey knows he struggles with his O.C.D., knows that it is going to be visible when he’s putting coasters over his beer at a bar or struggling to enter the hospital properly, but he also owns this part of himself because he knows that he has worse moments in private. Although Casey hasn’t allowed his O.C.D. to defeat him, he has acknowledged it will always on some level define him, a mirror to Fox’s own choice to reveal his Parkinson’s diagnosis and take on a new role as an activist for Parkinson’s research. Fox proves in “My Catalyst” that he’s still a deft comic performer, ably jousting with Cox or brushing aside The Todd, but the episode also allows space for Fox to acknowledge—if through fictional transference—the way he was changed by his own diagnosis, culminating in the striking final scenes as Casey’s private moment is shared with J.D.
One of the reasons Elliot is denied access to this narrative—if not Casey’s time on the show entirely, as we’ll discuss next week—is that the theme of mentorship will always rest with J.D., a character obsessed with the idea of having one. One of my favorite scenes in the episode is when J.D. is talking with Doug about his obsession, tracking it—logically—to his daddy issues; as Doug continues to talk with him, J.D. slips into voiceover and wonders if Doug is the mentor he’s looking for, using the same dialogue as when he made the same determination about Casey earlier in the episode. It’s the point where even J.D. acknowledges his desire for a mentor has gotten out of hand, and it’s also a precursor to the moment when all of the characters realize projecting their issues onto others is the definition of unproductive. Although Turk feels insecure when his status as the top dog is threatened, and Cox feels insecure when his ability to function as a mentor—as reluctant as he might be to admit that’s what he wants—is threatened, and J.D. feels insecure when the people he sees as mentors are unwilling to take on the role, Dr. Kevin Casey was not the cause of those problems.
He was—fittingly enough—the catalyst. While Elliot’s marginalization is partly functional—the episode is supersized and fully stuffed as it is, and Turk offers an angle into the surgery side of Casey’s specialty Elliot wouldn’t—it’s also logical: she isn’t concerned with gaining a mentor like J.D. is, nor is she as concerned with being “the best” as Turk. For all of her insecurities, Dr. Kevin Casey isn’t a catalyst for Elliot, just as he isn’t a catalyst for Carla or Jordan. Although breaking it down in these terms makes clear how much the character of Kevin Casey was designed as both a specific trigger for J.D., Cox, and Turk, and to signal Fox’s return to sitcoms following his Parkinson’s diagnosis, the greatest accomplishment of “The Catalyst” is that it nonetheless feels so real, a signal the series is building to an emotional climax in the episodes that follow.
- Regarding the gender question, it’s hard not to see the series through that lens when considering the scene where Turk and J.D. recreate the Married…with Children hooting as Danni walks into the room without a shirt on. I get that they’re making a reference, but it’s a cheap one.
- “Turk, we tried playing giant black guy. People ran.”—I had forgotten that “My Clean Break” signaled the introduction of the World’s Most Giant Doctor. I had also forgotten that Chet’s giant lab coat was joined by his enormous odor eater.
- Janitor Watch: After admiring Blonde Doctor’s bangs in “My Clean Break,” the Janitor shifts over to the C-Story in “The Catalyst,” a fun garbage disposal runner with his new sidekick Randall, Kelso, and a suicidal Ted (for whom Casey is also an unknowing catalyst for his latest failed attempt at jumping off the roof).
- “I should have waited until there was a chick around to make that XBOX joke, you know? He knows.”—The Todd has the best priorities.
- Another Queer Eye for the Straight Guy reference? Those writers were apparently really, really obsessed with that show.
- Netflix Music Rights Watch: Regardless what you think of Coldplay, I think everyone can agree that “Everything’s Not Lost” is roughly a billion times better than the terrible replacement song on Netflix. This is one that is definitely worth seeking out on DVD—or, shhh, on YouTube—if possible.
Next time on Scrubs: Porcelain epiphanies, and a screw up Dr. Cox will never forget.