“My Philosophy” (season 2, episode 13; originally aired 01/16/2003)
It has become clear in writing about every episode of Scrubs that the series’ narrative style is effectively “Variations on a Theme.” While there are standout episodes that break down the formula, the vast majority of episodes are about the basic trials of being a young doctor, which often means dealing with death.
As a result, much of “My Philosophy” doesn’t stand out on paper. It’s the story of a young mother battling a heart condition while pregnant and a still-young-but-not-quite-as-young woman who is on the list for a heart transplant, with your usual evocations of how unpredictable being in a hospital can be (thus foreshadowing that one of these patients is likely to die by the time the episode is over). Similarly, you can slot Elliot’s battle for a women’s locker room into yet another storyline focused on Dr. Kelso’s messy gender politics.
It would be easy to argue this is all reductive, but the theme being reworked remains remarkably solid. Death is a real thing, whether you’re watching a patient staring it down with a considerable amount of pluck or watching it take hold of a woman who is mentally prepared for the end. In truth, neither character ends up particularly well-developed, with both Mrs. Larkin and Elaine memorable more for their attitudes than for anything else about them. However, when the episode ends with a stirring sequence in which death is truly the Broadway musical that Elaine imagined, it turns what might otherwise be a simple replaying of this thematic content into something truly memorable: a performance of Colin Hay’s “Waiting For My Real Life To Begin” featuring Elaine and other members of the show’s cast.
What strikes me about this ending is that it isn’t actually sad. While it is emotional— impressively so given that we had only met the character 20 minutes earlier—the whole point of the sequence is that it isn’t sad in the way death normally is. J.D. finds solace in his imagination, in his belief (one could even say faith?) in his patient’s vision of death being everything she imagined it to be. J.D.’s imagination is often seen as a force of comic mischief, but it’s also a security blanket in moments of struggle, and here it gives him the relief he needs to process Elaine’s passing. It’s an imagined sequence, yes, but its relationship with reality is a comfort, both for J.D. and the audience.
It helps that everything we saw with the character of Elaine to that point felt so natural, free of any real plot beyond the basic circumstances. Elaine is introduced as a character who has a heart condition that requires a transplant, and every sequence after that is just J.D. sitting on the end of her bed chatting about what it’s like to be in her position. While it’s the song that makes Elaine memorable, it’s those conversations that resonate most when rewatching the episode. There’s something wonderfully natural about them, unburdened by any sort of larger narrative other than “people talking about death.” Similarly, Steve Larkin starts out as a bumbling idiot (something I wasn’t aware Sam Jaeger, who is the unsung hero of NBC’s Parenthood, was known for), but Jaeger brings some pathos to the later conversation and ensures it never feels more melodramatic than it has to.
That’s reflective of Scrubs’ “controlled chaos,” in which broad elements are buffered by grounded, “realistic” character moments. Elliot’s battle with Kelso over the difficulties of a co-ed change room for every female employee other than Naked Nancy has the silliness of the burlesque fantasy (and yet more flop sweat from Ted), but it’s resolved without any major conflicts. As soon as Kelso starts discussing expanding his hospital real estate, the end of the storyline is set in place, which means that the fantasy side of things is allowed to simply function as a fun diversion from the logical path (the newly vacated office being renovated into the change room).
In addition to its memorable conclusion and solid execution of basic storylines, Turk’s uphill battle toward proposing to Carla helps elevate “My Philosophy.” The entire plot is typical sitcom fodder—especially when Ralphie eats the ring and Turk pumps him full of bran in an attempt to retrieve it—but I love is that it ends with a simple proposal, free from any broader trappings. The circumstances are silly, but Carla’s non-response is authentic, and it resists turning a silly sitcom plot into a saccharine sitcom resolution. It’s the kind of subtle move the show steers away from in later seasons, and it builds momentum that carries into the next set of episodes.
“My Brother, My Keeper” (season 2, episode 14; originally aired 01/23/2003)
The title of this episode refers to the introduction of D.L. Hughley as Turk’s brother, which proves uneventful: Hughley gives a decent performance but fails to land any major laughs, and the thematic connection to the previous episode’s proposal is on-the-nose. In a show where guest stars often make a legitimate impact, Hughley comes and goes; Kevin Turk is a functional but ultimately transient figure within the Scrubs universe.
You could say the same for Dr. Townshend were it not for the fact that Dr. Townshend is played by Dick Van Dyke. Introducing a new character for a single episode is different than introducing a potentially recurring player (although Hughley never returned), as you have to maximize that character’s potential. Townshend works because he’s immediately defined as a certain kind of character (the respected old-timer everyone adores), creates two distinct relationships with other characters (as a rare friendly colleague for Dr. Kelso and a mentor figure for J.D.), and then reveals a different side that advances the episode’s plot (in this case, Townshend’s reliance on older, dangerous procedures).
Of course, this is turning the process into a science rather than an art form, the latter of which better describes Van Dyke’s approach to the role. It’s a fitting one given his lengthy career, capturing the charm of his early characters while acknowledging an old-fashioned aspect of that persona that doesn’t fit into a more realistic, grounded sitcom (which, at least in this point in its life, Scrubs is). Watching Townshend being forced to come to terms with his obsolescence is a rare moment of humanity from Dr. Kelso, a nice teaching moment for J.D. (albeit not the teaching moment he imagined), and one of those one-off Scrubs storylines that satisfies without necessarily entering into the series’ hall of fame.
“My Brother, My Keeper” also reintroduces what will become a strong recurring thread in subsequent episodes, as an increasingly pregnant Jordan returns for an ultrasound that Elliot conveniently witnesses (thus revealing to her the sex of the baby, something Jordan is trying to keep a secret despite Perry’s desire to know). I’ve always enjoyed the dynamic between Sarah Chalke and John C. McGinley, and it’s particularly compelling when the power dynamics are shifted around as they are here. It’s also a nice way to check in on Perry and Jordan’s relationship within the confines of the hospital: involving Elliot means the relationship can more easily be integrated into the natural rhythm of Sacred Heart, which keeps the writers from having to cut away to get a sense of where things stand. Along with Turk and Carla’s changing dynamic, Jordan’s pregnancy will be a big part of the season from this point forward, and working Elliot into the equation was a sharp strategy the show will deploy again before the season is done.
- Another week, another review with the Janitor relegated to the stray observations. Both episode’s Janitor stories follow the same basic trajectory: a détente is established through a gifted pen and an order from Townshend, but said détente is then broken by a leaking pen and Townshend’s dismissal (for which the Janitor blames J.D.). There’s some fine moments in both, but more variation between episodes would’ve been nice.
- I always like it when shows don’t bother worrying about continuity, so I like the oddity of the random researcher in the office next to Kelso’s eventually reappearing as the Janitor’s wife, Lady, in later seasons.
- Of course, “Waiting For My Real Life To Begin” would become the genesis for season six’s “My Musical,” and they both share in common a reluctance to allow Sarah Chalke to sing.
- Sorry about missing out on any insights from the commentary track on "My Sex Buddy" last week—I was stuck with a rented laptop with a non-functioning DVD player, so I was forced to resort to Netflix while traveling.
Next week: We finally get “His” side of the story, and a new life is brought into the world.