“My Day Off” (season 1, episode 9; originally aired 11/20/2001)
It’s possible to see “My Day Off” as a case of Scrubs sidelining its main character to highlight its supporting cast. When J.D. collapses while struggling to close the deal with a young woman at the bar, it means that he’s going to spend most of the episode in a hospital bed, and this limits his impact on the episode as a whole. However, as compared to the shifts in perspective that will come with the “His/Her/Their” episode constructions in later seasons, “My Day Off” remains explicitly told from J.D.’s perspective, thus limiting its ability to focus on the rest of the cast.
Rather, the goal here appears to be showing us the patient’s side of the hospital experience. To this point, the show has been (quite logically) focused on the doctors and their relationships with patients, but from the beginning of each storyline it has been clear that the real lesson here is for the doctors. While “My Old Lady” showed us three specific patients and certainly highlighted their unique points-of-view, the episode was constructed as a story about how many patients die in a hospital. We were meant to relate with the situations being displayed, but the episodic framework (and, really, the series’ framework) privileges one side of the relationship more than the other. “My Day Off” seeks to turn that around, upending (at least temporarily) the hierarchy between patient and doctor.
I’m not suggesting that this is particularly novel, nor necessarily as effective as it might have been had we entirely switched perspective to a patient who wasn’t already the show’s narrator (and thus in no danger of suffering any long term consequences). There was real potential here to actually give an admitted patient full control of the narrative (which I guess we could argue happens at least temporarily in “My Musical”), but simply transposing J.D. into that scenario doesn’t create a great deal of narrative interest (especially since the voiceover seems particularly on-the-nose at times here). While it does allow the show to more easily transition into something like Elliot’s cold bedside manner since J.D. is willing to be honest with her, the actual storyline it creates regarding J.D.’s lack of trust in Turk’s ability to operate on him felt like it was simply re-framing his doubts about Turk’s surgical competence back in “My Best Friend’s Mistake.”
The show is allowed to repeat themes, and this early in its life there is a tremendous value in returning to the same ground to reinforce key ideas. It’s also logical, ultimately, that J.D.’s fears about Turk’s competence would re-emerge when he’s the one being cut open. However, the episode backs away from fully serializing their relationship, and as a result it seems like a missed opportunity for the show to explore both this particular narrative device and the friends’ relationship over the course of the season.
I actually felt like the “role reversal” ideas played out better—or, at least, more effectively—in the less substantial secondary storylines. Largely removing Dr. Cox from the interns means that we get to see him less as a superior and more as an employee, both in his interactions with Kelso (a recurring theme) and in his interactions with his former boss, Dr. Benson. While Jordan’s arrival raised the possibility of Perry being vulnerable, Dr. Benson suggests a world in which Perry wants to impress someone other than himself, whether it’s showing off J.D. or showing up Kelso. Dr. Benson offers a perspective on Perry that we haven’t seen to this point, and one that will be important to the character’s future.
We already know that Elliot is a bit neurotic, and we saw in “My Bad” that she can be somewhat of a nuisance to patients, but the episode’s framework helps justify exploring that in a bit more detail. And, while we might look to Dr. Cox’s storyline as a key piece of character insight, Elliot’s “cold hands” storyline is basically just an excuse for her to embarrass herself, something that Sarah Chalke is highly capable of capturing. That montage is maybe a bit on the broad side, but Chalke sells the heck out of tossing food onto people and inadvertently injuring them. Now that the show has dialed in on what it wants her character to be, it’s enjoying letting that play out a bit, which is something we’ll see across both episodes this week.
While the show isn’t quite to the point where it’s really willing to shake up the hierarchies and dynamics, “My Day Off” nonetheless finds ways to create new perspectives and allow its still-emerging characters some room to grow while delivering a healthy combination of humor (the Fat Albert runner is a lot of fun) and emotional resonance (as seen in the quiet Thanksgiving celebration at the bar once everything is reconciled).
“My Nickname” (season 1, episode 10; originally aired 11/27/2001)
The one character I didn’t mention above was Carla, who actually has a fairly central position within “My Day Off.” The scene towards the end of the episode where she expresses how she doesn’t like telling people what to do (but then immediately tells everyone what to do) was a great joke on the surface, but it also suggests the character’s somewhat challenging demeanor. As the only nurse who is part of the main cast, and yet as someone who has a clear sense of authority (and a clear desire to perform that authority), her relationship with pretty much every main character will be testy (whether it’s her friendship with Elliot, her relationship with Turk, or her connection with Dr. Cox).
“My Nickname” specifically returns the very first relationship established on the show : J.D.’s first minutes at Sacred Heart were spent with Carla, with the latter taking over for the former when he proved unable to perform under pressure. While the voiceover maybe lays this out a bit too plainly, there is nonetheless tremendous value in exploring how that relationship has changed now that J.D. is more confident. Suddenly, he doesn’t need Carla the same way he needed her when he was inserting that I.V. line back in “My First Day,” and defining their friendship in the wake of that development is an important pivot point for the show’s dynamic (or, perhaps more importantly, for the hospital dynamic, given that the stakes here feel as though they go beyond the show’s artificial narrative into the story world the characters inhabit. In fact, that’s one of the strengths of “My Nickname” compared to “My Day Off”—its narrative feels like a natural event rather than an “event” in the narrative sense).
What I like about Carla’s arc here is that it is driven by an insecurity that the episode never shies away from. While J.D. is a bit of a jerk at points, I don’t think he’s entirely wrong to bristle at Carla defending him to Dr. Cox without giving him a chance to stand up for himself, and while he puts his foot in his mouth a number of times it never feels like a clear attempt to draw a hierarchy between the characters. The “problem” here, if we could even call it that, is that Carla has seen this happen before, and has her guard up in case it’s going to happen again. She’s conditioned to read J.D.’s behavior as dismissive, forcing him into the role of the snobbish doctor who decides he doesn’t need to be her friend anymore. While we might remain inside J.D.’s head through the voiceover, we’re given a great deal of insight into Carla’s point-of-view within the episode, and we find a flawed character with a history that we haven’t seen, and which is allowed to color her behavior in realistic and compelling ways. Sure, staging her big dramatic speech in the rain is a helpful cliché, but Judy Reyes is tremendous playing a more emotional (and more vulnerable) take on this character.
The other substantial storyline—rendered more substantial by Nicole Sullivan’s return in future seasons—is somewhat less natural, a more typical “patient leads doctor to reflect on their own life choices” scenario that we’ve come to expect from medical procedurals. What makes the story work, and what makes it memorable, is that Dr. Cox is there to be annoyed by Elliot and Sullivan’s Jill Tracy. Although Chalke and Sullivan have great chemistry, and their sorority sleepover demeanor is a lot of fun, it’s more fun with Perry is seething his way through every second of it. The takeaway is maybe not substantial, as “sometimes people need to take a break” is hardly the most novel of revelations, but Elliot seems to gain not only perspective on her own life but confidence in being able to assert herself to Dr. Cox (who is accepting of her decision once she discovers the words to rationalize it as medical rather than personal, as interconnected as they might be in this case).
Things are less substantial with Turk and Dr. Kelso’s “Battle for the Bench,” but given the weight being given to the other storylines this is a case where a C-story combining the unconnected characters is clearly not intended to serve as a substantial presence. In fact, its most important function might be keeping Turk busy so that Carla and J.D. can sort out their relationship without necessarily having him involved, which cleans up the narratives and gives them a bit more room to breathe (even if including a third storyline does make the episode a bit more “full” at the same time).
There was a comment last week that I’m somewhat used to getting, which suggested that considering Scrubs is a comedy these writeups are not necessarily focused on “funny” as a defining characteristic of the series. I laugh as I’m re-watching, and I think the show still works well as a comedy, but when considering its larger impact (and its larger aims), there is a clear desire to make something more than a comedy within these early episodes in particular. “My Nickname” has jokes, including a fun Janitor runner (“I hate Scooter pie!”), but the “takeaway” (and the resonance to the show’s longer legacy in at least my memory) has less to do with those jokes and more to do with the larger purpose (or importance) of the episode and its storylines.
While not all episodes will say something important, or have an explicit purpose, this early in a show’s run there is always something to be learned, something that we as the audience gain. While “My Day Off” provided a few new perspectives, “My Nickname” aimed more toward exploring shifting relationships, charting change in a way which begins to highlight how far the characters have come (as opposed to how far they have to go). You could say it marks the point where the show started looking towards a more concrete, less uncertain future, a transition that will become more important as the season wears on.
- Bill Lawrence was kind enough to offer some thoughts on Twitter regarding last week’s writeup, confirming that Sean Hayes’ appearance was indeed the result of network intervention. You can read his tweet about that here, and we’ll chat more about Jeff Zucker when we get to “My Bed Banter & Beyond.”
- Speaking of Lawrence, I always find myself reading into circumstances in which a showrunner takes a writing credit, so I’m curious as to why Lawrence chose to focus on this particular episode (and not something like “My Bed Banter & Beyond,” which some might see as more important to long-term arcs). And yes, this is shameless Lawrence bait now that I know for certain he’s reading.
- In terms of narrative shortcuts to establish Dr. Cox’s rebellion, “wearing a baseball jersey” felt a bit silly. Sort of like when Elliot had glasses back in the pilot.
- Turk will be dancing more in the seasons ahead, but “I Get To Cut You Open” is his first jam (unless we count his dancercize, and unless I’m misremembering).
- Maybe I’m crazy, and J.D. could have handled it better, but would they allow a friend to operate on another friend when not in an emergency situation? This is a legitimate question — I have no idea.
- “Don’t do that annoying thing… you know, when you talk.”
- “WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG. WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG.”
- “So where in Connecticut are you from?”
- “Whiny somethin’, I definitely like whiny… ”
- “Black-and-white photography, very artsy fartsy, no boobies.”
- “So you do scary little speeches? How adorable!”
Next week: A bonus unofficial 26th contribution to the TV Club Advent Calendar, and we learn J.D.’s policy vis-à-vis “Uggos.”