On one level, Scrubs is the perfect TV Club Classic series. This fall marks the 10th anniversary of Bill Lawrence’s comedy, the entire series is available streaming on Netflix, and a number of generic characteristics found within the show helped construct the foundation on which a large number of modern comedies have been built. For fans, it’s an opportunity to revisit episodes that they might not have seen in a while, while for non-fans it’s a chance to see how the series fits within the comedy landscape of the 21st century.
However, on another level, perhaps it might still be too soon for the early seasons of Scrubs to be considered on their own merits. After all, the show only concluded in March of last year, when the ninth season unceremoniously came to a close on ABC. And while we will likely have plenty of debates this fall regarding the show’s evolution, I think it is a universally accepted fact that Scrubs became more divisive the longer it ran, to the point where even mentioning the series in an unrelated review sets off an extended debate these days (which we also saw when the show’s inclusion in TV Club Classic was announced, and you all decided to get a head start on things).
I would never argue that the criticisms the show faced in later seasons were unfounded, but I would sort of argue that they have become problematically pervasive. I’m guilty of this myself, even. Last year, I made an offhand comment about the show’s fifth season, suggesting that it was where the show “went downhill,” and a number of other critics questioned this assessment. Needing no further excuse to procrastinate, I revisited the season on Netflix, and discovered that the fifth season features some really strong story arcs that help to overcome some tonal concerns (arcs that were not present in the two seasons which followed). It just became too easy to fall into a pattern of inclusion and exclusion, or labeling some seasons as good and others as bad, and allowing that to bleed into our opinion of the show as a whole.
When I hear people talking about how annoying J.D. is, or how obnoxious the voiceover is, or how silly the fantasies are, I fully understand where they’re coming from. However, I feel we’re reaching the point where these assessments are becoming blanket statements about the entire series, which to me risks obscuring the subtle and sophisticated comedy series found in earlier seasons. Even if I agree that the show evolved into something very different than this, I would hope that any television fan would be able to watch the first season of Scrubs with an open mind and see that the very elements that would come to define Scrubs as gimmicky or cliché were once nuanced narrative and stylistic devices that framed a show about how we perceive of ourselves both as individuals and as part of a larger community.
Or so I will argue over the next 12 weeks.
“My First Day” (season 1, episode 1; originally aired Oct. 2, 2001)
At the beginning of “My First Day,” John Dorian is lying wide-awake when his alarm goes off. We’re meeting him on the first day of his internship at Sacred Heart, and what follows is a scene that we would now view as “typical Scrubs”: J.D., preparing to shave, ends up using the shaving cream to create an endless parade of humorous shaving cream patterns in the mirror. According to Bill Lawrence’s commentary track, this was an extensive process that left many potential options on the cutting room floor, and we could now view this as an example of J.D.’s neuroses exploding in a bit of silliness.
However, what struck me re-watching the scene was that the voiceover explicitly suggests that this is a nervous reaction, the kind of goofy thing J.D. does because he doesn’t know what else to do. Even if we argue that the show eventually became wacky for the sake of being wacky, its first scene suggests that J.D.’s wackiness is a symptom as opposed to a disease, his individual response to a universal feeling (nervousness) that we can all relate to. In essence, it’s a defense mechanism, something that distracts him from the stress that will dominate the next years of his life, and returning to it for the first time in a few years reminded me how well “My First Day” captured that point in your life where you’re on the verge of the next chapter. I was only 15 when Scrubs premièred, but I’m 25 now, and even if I don’t have plans to give myself a shaving cream bikini I feel like J.D.’s worldview is something I can relate to.
It’s also what the show’s success hinges on. The decision to rely so heavily on voiceover is a risky one, especially given that the voiceover is defining both the protagonist and the series itself in “My First Day.” I don’t particularly have anything against the use of voiceover, but I do find that there’s a difference between voiceover that seeks to be meaningful and voiceover that seeks to explain things. There are elements of exposition to be found in J.D.’s voiceover, absolutely, but I’d argue its most prominent function is to contrast between what we see on screen and what’s really going on in J.D.’s head. When Dr. Kelso applauds his work on the foley catheter, we learn he had a nurse do it; when Turk appears to be comfortably settling in without J.D. and yet the latter forces himself to appear supportive, we learn that he needs his friend more than he’s able to say. The disconnect between J.D.’s performance of competency and his inner fear is integral to the success of the episode, and it’s the voiceover that lays this out for us.
It also offers a successful bridge into the two central relationships of the series, neither of which are explicitly romantic (although one, we could argue, veered into that territory for the sake of humor in later seasons). “My First Day” uses flashback to lay out the nature of J.D. and Turk’s friendship, which is really more of a partnership than anything else. However, as inseparable as they may have been throughout their education, the hospital divides them almost immediately: J.D. is a medical intern, while Turk is a surgical intern; J.D. is nervous and struggling, while Turk is already a rock star; J.D. battles with Elliot, while Turk gets naked with Carla in the on-call room. However, just as it seems like the first day has entirely driven them apart, they reconcile in the end when Turk reveals that, were the show to be told from his perspective instead of J.D.’s, the voiceover would be just as contradictory. That they share anxieties, and that they simply respond to them differently (with Turk more able to sell himself as confident), bonds them together, and nicely transitions into what will be one of the show’s most consistent dynamics.
I have to admit, though, that I’m partial to J.D.’s relationship with Dr. Cox, and I hadn’t realized how early their dynamic was mapped out here. While the insults are certainly part of this, and became one of the show’s most reliable comic weapons until they started to veer into self-parody, it really comes down to the mentor figure that J.D. will need to get through this. What I love about “My First Day” is that this is demonstrated through the voiceover, in that Dr. Cox knows exactly what J.D. is thinking at all times, always able to offer valuable insight (even if that’s occasionally in the form of a well-placed insult). Whereas Dr. Kelso is only thinking about himself, Perry knows what it’s like to be in that position, and he wants J.D. to succeed almost in spite of himself (as noted when he almost gives him a pat on the back before pulling back at the last second).
The series’ other relationships are more thinly sketched out in “My First Day,” but the seeds are all there: J.D. and the Janitor (never intended as such a substantial role) have their infamous showdown over the penny in the door, J.D. and Elliot lay the ground work for their “Will They, Won’t They, Oh God Just Decide Already” relationship, Turk and Carla express their mutual attraction, and Dr. Kelso establishes himself as the series’ cruel authority figure. Not all of this is particularly subtle, with Carla in particular confined to a certain degree of (well-handled) monologue-driven exposition, but a pilot is meant to be a bit on-the-nose. The voiceover lays out the parallel between Dr. Cox and Dr. Kelso a bit too bluntly, perhaps, but it helps sketch out a broader situation which would prove to hold a great deal of comic potential.
At the same time, though, the sudden death of J.D.’s patient (which takes place offscreen, so as to emphasize the sense that it could happen without J.D. even realizing it) establishes Scrubs is also willing to explore something grounded, something real. One of my favorite moments in “My First Day” is when J.D. imagines The Todd watching Turk and Carla having sex, and we immediately cut to J.D. laughing to himself. It’s a humanizing moment for the character, a moment of levity that feels very ‘real’ as brought to life by Zach Braff; it’s also a moment of levity that wasn’t as present in later seasons, a sort of innocence the show would perhaps naturally lose over time. As much as Braff has become a divisive figure in his own right, this show was a deserved launching pad for his acting career, and the degree to which its success rested on his shoulders is apparent throughout the series’ pilot. As much as the final scene—J.D. walking directly into a glass door—plays into broader sitcom aesthetics, it was the honesty which best spoke to the character at its best, a quality that will be put to good use as the show continues.
“My Mentor” (season 1, episode 2; originally aired Oct. 4, 2001)
Like all second episodes, “My Mentor” has to start over from scratch on some level, repeating parts of the pilot in order to allow for viewers who were silly enough to skip the première (or who were checking in on the show because it was airing as part of Must See TV just two nights after its premiere in its regular Tuesday-night timeslot). The opening musical sequence, perhaps a bit too cute for its own good, serves two important functions on this level, reintroducing the primary characters and laying out the geography of the new hospital set (which wasn’t used for the pilot, and which we could now recognize from countless other series). It’s not the show’s first fantasy (a prize which goes to J.D. and Elliot’s race down the hall in “My First Day”), but it’s the first fantasy that has enveloped the entire cast of characters.
After that reintroduction, though, “My Mentor” avoids repeating too much of the pilot’s structure, moving quickly to advance a number of storylines that were introduced in the pilot while establishing the episodic structure that Scrubs would utilize through its entire run. J.D. begins the episode at a point where routine tasks are no longer a problem, shifting the conflict from “My First Day” (where the routine tasks were giving him anxiety, resulting in a leaking stomach and the like) and allowing the show to focus on medical cases rather than medical tasks. Will Forte is not one of the series’ most memorable “patients of the week” (although we’ll be getting to one of those next week), but he establishes the basic pattern: J.D. makes a personal connection, struggles to reconcile his personal view with the patient’s views, and eventually learns a lesson about being a doctor.
To be clear, this is hardly groundbreaking storytelling, especially given it’s cribbed directly from medical shows from television past (both comic and dramatic). However, it’s an effective way to provide information about J.D.’s evolution as a doctor (or the evolution of other characters who receive similar storylines as the season/series go forward), and it gives the episode a thematic weight that can tie its various storylines together. J.D.’s conclusion that you can’t save people from themselves applies to Will’s battle with smoking, but it also applies to his attempt to save Dr. Cox from eternal loneliness, and you could even extend it to Elliot’s struggles to keep her foot out of her mouth with pretty much everyone in the entire hospital. As much as the voiceover ends up having to do a lot of work to make these connections, the best thing a sitcom can do early in its life is find a way to economically develop a large number of characters while maintaining a clear point of view, and the thematic ties which connect the patient- and character-driven elements of the episode are a successful device at this stage in Scrubs’ life (and throughout the series).
The material with J.D. and Dr. Cox is foundational to their relationship, but it doesn’t extend too far beyond what was established in the pilot. J.D. decides that his mentor is someone he can hang out with, and Dr. Cox fundamentally disagrees, drawing out the boundaries between the two characters which would continue to be tested over the course of the series (only really breaking down in moments where either character is truly suffering, or when a particularly joyous occasion brings them together). This is a more removed version of Perry than what we would see in later seasons, his sterile apartment an exaggerated (and, frankly, ridiculous) representation of his demeanor, but we nonetheless get more of a sense of how these two personalities will clash in the series to come.
I’d argue we get a similar sense of Turk and Carla’s relationship, which is something the show never really pretended wasn’t going to happen. What I like, though, is that its beginnings are contentious, allowing Carla to take a fiery stand against Turk’s lame attempts at picking her up but also allowing Turk to stand up for himself (and for Elliot) at the end of the episode. While Turk is always going to be a bit immature, especially compared to Carla (who is both older and more experienced), that he could put all of that aside to speak to her on Elliot’s behalf is a sign that he’s more than just a jock surgeon with an ego, and proves a strong foundation for the relationship that develops over the course of the series. This isn’t a “romantic” relationship in the traditional sense, especially given that it’s introduced with a(n aborted) quickie in the on-call room, and its continuation in “My Mentor” is similarly intelligent about keeping things from falling too quickly into cliché.
You’ll notice that there’s one character I haven’t really discussed yet, which is probably a bit disrespectful to Sarah Chalke, but the Elliot on display in these episodes would effectively disappear by the time the season came to an end. I know this in part because I’ve witnessed it, and in part because Bill Lawrence spends a fair bit of his commentary track on “My First Day” discussing how they went back to the drawing board with Elliot after the pilot. There, she was a hyper-competitive doctor whose intensity was a threat to those around her, a characterization that sort of inevitably creeps its way into “My Mentor.” Eventually, of course, her neuroses would be turned up to 11 and she would become defined by crippling insecurities rather than any sort of competitive streak, but there’s still the sense that Elliot is an abrasive personality in her feud with Carla, something that doesn’t extend into the series as a whole. I appreciate, though, that they decided to do this gradually: Instead of throwing out the Elliot character from the pilot (although Lawrence did do some re-shooting to give the writers a bit more room to work with), they introduce a storyline that helps to soften the edges, slowly taking the character in a direction that’s both more likeable (a common network note) and funnier (which is, certainly, more important to the grand scheme of things).
“My Mentor” is not a particularly memorable outing, but it’s indicative of what the show would aim to accomplish over the course of its first season. There’s a foundation of old-fashioned television narrative here, but J.D. sort of voiceovers the show’s strategy: He suggests that “sometimes, if all you have is old words, all you can do is put them together and hope they say something new.” Indeed, what we’ll discover over the course of the first season is that Scrubs’ originality is in how it puts things together more than the things themselves, which is part of what makes the show so influential, and part of what will hopefully make this journey through the first season an interesting and enjoyable one.
- For those going the DVD route as opposed to Netflix, Lawrence’s commentary track on “My First Day” offers both some insights and some charming self-deprecation regarding some continuity issues during the sequence in which Dr. Cox is berating J.D. in the doctor’s lounge (“Glasses!” “No Glasses!”).
- I’m always interested in what details from a pilot carry over into the series at large. Obviously, stylistic forms continue (the fantasies, for example), but Carla’s “Bambi” nickname for J.D. is one of those little details that become characteristic of a relationship. Meanwhile, while Dr. Cox starts “My Mentor” with “Radar,” he eventually escalates into calling J.D. girls’ names by episode’s end.
- Similarly, look at the characters that get pulled out of “My First Day”: Lawrence suggests they basically just cast people they liked and knew, and yet Laverne, The Todd, and Ted would become a consistent presence, and Neil Flynn’s Janitor would become a regular in his own right.
- The show loves a good montage set to a semi-obscure pop song, but the “Please Forgive Me”—also known as “The David Gray Song That Isn’t ‘Babylon’”—montage is a strong start, and Lawrence says it’s what earned director Adam Bernstein the job.
- There’ll be plenty of time to expand on this in the weeks ahead, but note that commentary on the state of the medical system (particularly related to insurance coverage) is already embedded into the pilot. Also, I love the way Ken Jenkins emphasizes the “in” in insurance. It’s so unnerving to me, for some reason.
- So, do we think Will Forte is named after the Will Forte? I’m sort of presuming yes, given that Lawrence and Forte would later team up on a little show about amusing genetic copies.
- I’m always surprised by the weird establishing shots of J.D. walking up to the hospital when I re-watch these early episodes.
- Elliot getting creeped out by Rowdy still makes me laugh a whole lot.
- I think “Somebody choking her” is my favorite of J.D.’s predictions on how various characters would die, but I enjoy how they’d eventually pay off Turk’s eating habits with his diabetes.
Next week: J.D. and Elliot have 48 hours to kiss in “My Best Friend’s Mistake,” and J.D. meets Mrs. Tanner in “My Old Lady.” And get ready to have this stuck in your head.