“My Own American Girl” (season 3, episode 1; originally aired 10/02/2003)
“Once you hit the third year, there’s not a lot of surprises.”
During its early seasons, Scrubs was not shy about acknowledging the parallels between a career in medicine and the development of a television sitcom. The first year is about getting the lay of the land, the second year is about learning and building on that experience, and then the third year… well, in the third year there aren’t really a lot of surprises. Although time will still pass and challenges will still crop up, both a medical resident and a television sitcom will want to be settling into a comfortable groove by the time they reach their respective third years.
Perhaps knowing that a decade later it would make my job easier, Bill Lawrence builds much of “My Own American Girl” as a self-aware acknowledgment that Scrubs isn’t out to break any significant new ground as the third season begins. The season opens with a standard reintroduction of the show’s characters—so as to potentially welcome new viewers—as J.D. successfully predicts through voiceover what each of them will say. It’s similar to the sense of confidence that J.D., Elliot, and Turk gained after becoming residents, but now that’s settled into nearly every character in the show: From J.D.’s perspective, the everyday of Sacred Heart has fallen into place, and he’s able to focus his efforts on solving the mystery of why Mrs. Farr is still suffering from abdominal pain—as opposed to the kind of large-scale interpersonal conflict that kicked off the second season.
“My Own American Girl” turns its attention to the one character that isn’t as satisfied with her place within the everyday sameness of Sacred Heart. Elliot started the series as an intense, goal-oriented doctor before being gradually transformed into the character Laverne refers to as Marshmallow: a bit soft, a lot awkward, and not necessarily someone that others would take seriously (like we saw back in “My Blind Date,” where Elliot is Dr. Cox’s last option as he goes for his perfect game). This isn’t to say that Elliot isn’t a competent doctor, a buffoon and little else, but she’s also someone that isn’t going to lay claim to the confidence J.D. seems to possess as the season begins. Instead, she’s the kind of person who buys a new car, leaves the passenger side door open (for some reason), and then watches as someone drives by and smashes into it.
There’s nothing wrong with this characterization of Elliot, and Sarah Chalke gets a lot of mileage out of the car-door situation, whether it’s carrying it around the hospital or her “Frick!”/”Double Frick!” as the doors are smashed off. As her reunion with the returning Sean (Scott Foley) reminds us, she’s always been a bit awkward, whether it’s in relationships or in her day-to-day life, and her driving away without a passenger side door—and with four smoothies on her roof that eventually cascade onto her windshield—is a funny Elliot story in its own right. The issue is that whereas J.D. appears to have matured into his role as a second-year resident—we’re at least two seasons away from when that maturity starts to disappear—and Turk and Carla are getting married, Elliot has no forward momentum. “My Own American Girl” looks at how this reputation keeps her from successfully doing the job she is capable of doing.
The result is a première that avoids large-scale plot developments or elaborate episodic storylines in favor of giving us an introduction to the new Elliot. The turn is signified through a haircut (which she somehow got at a fancy salon without an appointment, but let’s go with it) and a confident new wardrobe; her transformation is completed in a fantastic slow-motion destruction of her symbolic childhood bedroom set to Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers’ “American Girl.” The new Elliot then turns out to be the last piece in the puzzle for J.D.’s round of tests for Mrs. Farr, intimidating the same head of radiology who pushed her around earlier. Elliot isn’t the one who solves the case: That doesn’t happen until Dr. Cox takes a moment to resume his role as mentor after putting J.D. off all episode-long, suggesting that the group works best when each of them contributes in their own way. The new Elliot is someone who contributes, and not simply the person who brings the smoothies and offers moral support from the sidelines.
The show will never just be about Elliot, but I appreciate “My American Girl” for giving the character a more prominent role so as to enrich those episodes where she takes a backseat to J.D. The episode finds time to focus on other characters as well, with Dr. Cox coming to terms with Dr. Kelso after punching him out at the end of last season—the one real “conflict” the show left unresolved—and Carla working to make Turk jealous to regain some of her control in the relationship. But the nice thing about being in a third season is that you don’t have to spend time introducing characters or setting up the stakes of the show. With those already in place, it gives Lawrence the space to say “This is who Elliot was, this is who Elliot will be now, and here’s how it’s going to move the show forward this season.”
“My Journey” (season three, episode two; originally aired 10/09/2003)
That forward momentum begins at the end of “My Own American Girl,” in which Lawrence cheekily throws out the possibility of J.D. and Elliot rekindling their romance in light of her new attitude, only for Sean to show up and signal—explicitly—that the show isn’t ready to go there. Instead, Elliot gets a chance to explore her relationship with Sean—initially, at least—outside of the confines of a love triangle, focusing instead on the work/life balance that prompted their breakup back in season one. While that storyline has some fun location work at Sea World San Diego including a great two-hander between Scott Foley and Betty the harp seal, and it provides the romantic final image of Eliot and Sean confirming they intend to make it work as dolphins jump behind them, it isn’t the central journey that brings conflict to the season’s second episode.
Turk and Carla spend the first episode of the second season exploring their relationship, but here—with new Elliot safely established—the impact of their pending nuptials on Turk’s relationship with J.D. rises to the surface. For J.D. this is a chance to reaffirm their friendship by celebrating with what Turk sees as a “man date”; for Turk it becomes a turning point in his discomfort with his close relationship with J.D. Three seasons before the two characters will be duetting on “Guy Love,” and just a season after they spent much of the second season première in bed together talking about their feelings, it seems that Turk has gotten some cold feet and “My Journey” offers a reason why: it turns out Turk is a touch homophobic.
It’s a storyline that I will admit to having some trouble parsing a decade later. On the one hand, there’s an effectiveness to the show acknowledging that a character could be self-aware in his homophobia, and that the thought of being intimate with J.D.—emotionally, more than physically—would scare Turk in meaningful ways. However, it arrives in the middle of two episodes that have their fair share of stereotypical gay jokes: Stephen the gay dancer, Dr. Cox’s “tiny gay sailor” quip about his son, and Todd pondering aloud whether gay men get aroused by their own genitalia. And while we get two gay characters in Turk and J.D.’s patient Will and his fiancé Tracy, they become defined more by their physical similarities to Turk and J.D. then by any substantive characteristics, which means we don’t necessarily get a well-rounded gay character through which to explore these issues.
By today’s standards, there’s something uncomfortable to me about a show effectively giving into gay panic, the idea of homosexuality serving as a catalyst for conflict as opposed to being the subject of the storyline itself. However, I imagine that in 2003 the fact that Turk’s homophobia is acknowledged as being somewhat bigoted could have been perceived as a step in the right direction. What I do feel confident of, though, is that Will’s “That’s kinda gay” is a punchline that does a lot to gloss over some of the more complicated politics of the storyline. I understand why it does that: Scrubs is still a comedy, there’s only 23 minutes to tell this story, and so there needs to be a light-hearted transition to get Turk from his point of self-disclosure with Will to going out and having that appletini date with J.D. But given the sudden proliferation of gay jokes and the potential for this storyline to make a more concerted point regarding homosexuality, the tension in the storyline still seemed off to me in revisiting the episode.
Turk and J.D.’s relationship is a huge part of this series, and something that needed to evolve in light of Turk’s pending marriage. I like the way Turk’s anxiety about the wedding feeds through J.D., and the episode ends on a nice scene between the two characters and a Journey montage that earns points for getting in well ahead of the Glee-ification of “Don’t Stop Believing.” That being said, I wish, with 10 years of hindsight, that the catalyst for this had been developed into a more meaningful connection with their gay patient rather than with the idea of his homosexuality.
- Welcome back from our one-year hiatus! I’d like to thank everyone who expressed their support for these reviews continuing, either in the season two comments or on the TV Roundtable look at “My Musical.” I’m looking forward to revisiting a season that I haven’t watched in a while, and I hope many of you will watch along as the summer progresses.
- I always wonder how the public response to the long, drawn-out relationship between Turk and Elliot would have played in a Twitter age.
- Numerous characters point this out for us, but Carla’s C-story about the missing pee cup in “My Journey” is almost insultingly slight. That said, slight as it is, it’s clearly the result of a “Huh, we should put the Janitor and Carla together” brainstorm, and there’s some fun bits for the two characters in there.
- Given the prominence of music in both episodes, I was curious what survived to the Netflix versions: Turns out they sprung for both Petty and Journey, although U2’s “Beautiful Day” was cut from the opening scenes of “My Own American Girl.”
- Speaking of Petty, the use of “American Girl” foreshadows the Petty-centric episode titling pattern of Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel’s Cougar Town—perhaps because of this, that show has yet to use “American Girl” as an episode title.
- Sign you’re in a season première: Ted confirms that Carla and Turk are engaged now, in case any first-time viewers didn’t know where their relationship stood.
- If you’re tracking the timeline, Dr. Kelso’s son is currently living in the Portland subway system as the season begins. And if you’re tracking Dr. Kelso, listen for the nose whistle.
- I need to work “Do you know what I realized while I was dragging my car door around?” into more casual conversations.
- “Your heart is breaking inside? That’s so embarrassing for you.”—we only get the one scene with Jack and Jordan (Dr. Cox becomes a sort of utility comic foil in “My Journey,” to great effect), but it’s a fun one.
- The Janitor thinking his grandmother was his mother is not an uncommon situation that families would use to hide teenage or out-of-wedlock pregnancies. The idea that he had a “Brother Dad?” That’s a different story.
- “Why is everything so much easier with dolphins?”—he was funny back in season one, but they really let Scott Foley let loose comically in the Sea World sequences, which were the best part of “My Journey” for me.
- Did you know Laverne is on Days Of Our Lives now?
- I enjoyed the clear evidence that the show had limited time to film at Sea World, both in the fact that Elliot getting splashes is clearly a later take after she’s already wet and the obvious day-for-night shooting post-production work on the final scene.