“My Sacrificial Clam” (season 1, episode 21; originally aired 04/30/2002)
On the DVD commentary for “My Sacrificial Clam,” Bill Lawrence is joined by Robert Maschio (The Todd) and Sam Lloyd (Ted), who he identifies as the leaders of the second tier of comic characters on the show. It’s not necessarily a crazy claim, and Lawrence’s explanation that he wanted a deep comic bench of memorable, funny secondary characters à la a “live-action Simpsons” provides a good basis for understanding why a show like the American version of The Office sought to introduce a tiered structure of characters.
However, are those tiers really all that evident in the first season of Scrubs? Without delving too far into the DVDs, it’s interesting to note that the commentaries were recorded in conjunction with the 2005 release of the first season on DVD, and so they’re being recorded at a point where this would be a fairly standard suggestion. As viewers who have seen the entire show and are returning to watch these early episodes, the suggestion fits perfectly with how we understand Scrubs, which means that when we see the origins of The Todd and Ted the lawyer we transpose our future experience with the characters onto these earlier incarnations.
I am aware that this is not a novel statement: When we re-watch television series, our knowledge of what’s to come obviously influences our reading of the episodes in question. However, it’s something that struck me about “My Sacrificial Clam,” an episode that doesn’t stand out as particularly remarkable except for what it portends. Most simply, and something that Maschio points out on the commentary track, Turk’s storyline about gaining weight and his justification for gorging out on donuts has been transformed into some rather dark foreshadowing of the character’s battle with diabetes in later seasons. It’s a case where you know this wasn’t intended as foreshadowing, but was instead conceived as a fairly slight, observational storyline about the perils of keeping shape as a doctor, another beat in Turk and Carla’s stable relationship and a segue into Dr. Cox’s loneliness that has him working out nearly every night of the week.
Similarly, it’s tough not to view Elliot’s breakup with Sean in light of Scott Foley’s return later in the series’ run. In the context of the first season, Sean is technically no more important than Alex, J.D.’s hit-and-run love interest who stuck around for just a half-episode longer (provided we count “My Blind Date” as half an episode given we don’t know her identity throughout). Mind you, it is significant that Sean leaves on fairly good terms whereas Alex turned out to be both a thief and a drug addict, but in context they are each categorized as short-term love interests who tell us something about the characters’ ability to balance their jobs and their personal relationships.
However, ignoring what we might have to say about Sean in future seasons, I like the way the breakup is handled here, if only because it diverges nicely from J.D.’s breakup with Alex. This isn’t a case where a single major event forces Elliot and Sean apart, but rather a gradual realization on the part of Elliot that she isn’t capable of being in a relationship the way she wants to be in a relationship. Sarah Chalke does a really fine job with that speech to Sean just outside the hospital, walking the character from a sense of frustration to the point of understanding even as she curses herself for not being able to feel differently. That sense of “realization” is integral to grounding the show and its characters, and will become equally important when we get to “My Occurrence,” and it proves integral to both crystallizing the short term function of this relationship and leaving a foundation in case the show ever returns to this relationship in the future (which, spoiler alert, they do).
While J.D.’s hepatitis scare doesn’t necessarily offer a different meaning when viewed in retrospect—still pretty plainly a “This is a thing that would happen to a young doctor and force them to reflect on their ability to become a doctor” storyline—there are two things I like about it. The first is the presence of the St. Elsewhere alumni (Ed Begley Jr., William Daniels, Stephen Furst, and Eric Laneuville), which I suppose might qualify as a retrospective shift in context given that there’s no way I had any idea what St. Elsewhere was when this aired in 2002 (and if you’re still in the same boat, check out Todd VanDerWerff’s Primer on 1980s TV dramas). However, since then I’ve familiarized myself with the series (including watching the pilot for TV Surveillance’s great Test Pilot feature), so it was fun to return to this with a clearer sense of the debt Scrubs owes to medical shows like St. Elsewhere. The presence of the former St. Elgius docs in this storyline is pretty superficial, but it’s still a great tribute that makes the episode more memorable.
On a structural level, though, I appreciate that the episode reveals the negative results of the test at the midpoint of the episode instead of waiting until the end. It transforms J.D.’s fear from the actual incident in question to a less rational fear of the hospital in general, offering a more humbling experience that better interrogates the character’s role as a doctor. Yes, it’s the same structure as many other storylines in the first season, but it’s a structure that I enjoy when it goes beyond situational conflict to how that situation would influence the characters’ day-to-day work. The episode has to rush to establish this, but it’s a good rushing that lets the episode say something more significant, albeit not quite as significant as what will follow in the next episode.
Indeed, one of the challenges with “My Sacrificial Clam” is that it’s awkwardly positioned as the last “regular” episode of the season without really connecting to the storyline that is introduced in “My Occurrence” or the recurring storylines that will prove the lynchpin to “My Last Day.” Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that future storylines have rescued it from a more ignoble position to become an important episode, at least in retrospect.
“My Occurrence” (season 1, episode 22; originally aired 05/07/2002)
One could argue that the importance of “My Occurrence” (and next week’s “My Hero”) has grown in retrospect, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that “My Occurrence” was pretty special without the benefit of what would follow. Even if we didn’t know the extent to which we will come to know Ben Sullivan, Jordan’s brother and Dr. Cox’s best friend, this episode nonetheless does something very important in unifying its storytelling toward a common purpose. There are technically B- and C-stories in “My Occurrence,” but their function is streamlined in order to facilitate a knockout final sequence that effectively engages the audience with the fate of a patient in ways not seen since “My Old Lady.”
Brendan Fraser is not an actor that could be called “universally beloved” (especially given his uneven film career), but this is a strong performance of a very well-realized character. The speed at which Ben becomes a meaningful part of this universe is a testament to Lawrence’s script, which does a lot of work simply in the way the character is defined. Positioning him with Jordan and Perry’s relationship creates an instant sense of history, as well as two interpersonal relationships (a contentious sibling relationship with Jordan and a conspiratorial relationship with Dr. Cox) that we can evaluate based on our knowledge of those characters. Beyond that, Lawrence has the character self-identify as “weird,” adding quirks that never take the character too far into broad comedy because of the way his relationships with Jordan and Dr. Cox ground him. Fraser does all of this very well, but he was operating with a cleverly designed set of parameters that start the episode off on a strong foundation.
Beyond that point, the episode works well with misdirection, something that’s potentially lost on those of us who have re-watched the episode several times. It begins in the typical structure, with Turk nearly removing the wrong man’s testicle, Elliot dealing with a returning Jill Tracy (Nicole Sullivan), and J.D. socializing with Ben (who was at the hospital after shooting himself with a nail gun) and Perry. After that point, however, the storylines begin to collapse in on one another like a stack of dominoes: The mistake with Turk’s patient pushes Elliot to discover that a mistake was made with Jill’s urine sample (suggesting she is pregnant when she is not, resulting in an awkward phone call with her fiancé with whom she has not had sex), and then both mistakes eventually seep into J.D.’s mind when he and Dr. Cox begin to suspect that there is something wrong with Ben beyond a board being nailed to his hand.
Once that suspicion is established, the first two stories fade into the background, converting into engines for what becomes a powerful piece of storytelling. What I love is that it disrupts something entirely normal, discovered as J.D. plays pool with Ben and Perry. The scene begins, we presume, as a continuation of J.D.’s desire to be closer with Dr. Cox, and his sense that getting closer to Ben might help him with this. J.D. is drunk in this sequence, Ben having been sneaking him drinks all night, but he isn’t drunk to the point of acting like a child, and their interactions are casual and natural despite the oncoming reveal. And yet, before Dr. Cox specifically observes that Ben’s bandage is bloodier than it should be, and long before Ben lays out the concern by noting a previous shaving injury also bled for a lengthy period, you can see the bloody bandage when the scene begins. This wasn’t a dramatic, sudden emergence of blood from his wound, an emergency in the traditional sense. Rather, like Elliot grasping why her relationship with Sean isn’t working out, it’s a gradual realization that something is potentially very wrong.
The rest of the episode plays out as a study in how far we’ll go to protect ourselves from those truths, in this case an extended fantasy as J.D. searches for a mistake that doesn’t exist. It is dangerous to call this a fantasy given how often the show’s fantasies are characterized as brief cutaways or as wild inventions of J.D.’s imagination, but this is a different kind of fantasy. J.D. isn’t trying to escape to another world in this particular fantasy, instead looking to escape to a slightly different reality where the test results that suggest Ben has leukemia are the result of yet another mistake. It’s so realistic a fantasy that it isn’t clearly a fantasy until its final moments when Ben Sullivan, advocate of the candid photograph, poses the entire gang together for a snapshot. Everything before that was something that could have happened, a hypothetical scenario that would have taken place had J.D. turned around with that file in his hand and gone on a quest for a mistake. While this does mean that a good part of the episode never actually happened, it is one of the most significant and effective instances where the narrative’s location within J.D.’s head is used to facilitate a substantial narrative intervention, an intervention which helps make Ben’s case one of the most significant in the first season (or in any season).
While J.D. observes that it seems strange that the entire hospital staff (including the Janitor) would come to see off Ben after he was only there for a few days, the scene reflects the success of the episode in making Ben seem like a central character. That ending montage featuring Ben’s photographs set to Guided By Voices’ “Hold On Hope”—one of the many songs from the first season that I will forever associate with the show—does a wonderful job of positioning Ben’s story relative to the entire hospital. Some of the photos are situational, documenting moments that we can pick out as clear scenes within the episode, but others suggest he was elsewhere, capturing other moments and weaving himself into the fabric of the staff members’ lives. While it may have been unrealistic for the whole gang to come together to send him off, the episode does a tremendous job of making the audience, at least, invested in his fate to the same degree as J.D. (who, like us, just met the guy fairly recently).
Regardless of where Ben might go both in next week’s conclusion to this two-parter or in future appearances, “My Occurrence” stands alone as a fine piece of both character development and narrative structure, delivering a poignant and emotional half-hour that honestly could have stood as the season’s finale despite its lack of connection to ongoing serialized elements or advancement within the medical field (the two elements that will prove central to “My Last Day”). As has become increasingly clear throughout the first season, the elements on display here are truly the heart of Scrubs as it moves forward into future seasons: funny, sad, and willing to explore the large space between the two.
- The Todd’s “Your. Name. Rocks!” line to Dr. Cox cracks me up. It’s so wonderfully earnest, avoiding sexual humor or any other easily identified gimmick in favor of a simple rhyme.
- Scott Foley didn’t really get a chance to interact with many other members of the cast, but his chemistry with Sarah Chalke is palpable, and his ability to handle the pace of the jokes (in particular the bit about being fine with Elliot deciding to start stripping) is very impressive. I wish he would do more comedy.
- A quick logic nitpick: There’s a point in “My Occurrence” where Turk suggests that he nearly cut out Mr. Weinberg’s testicle, but the whole point of that scene is that it wasn’t Mr. Weinberg on the operating table, right?
- Some interesting production order shifts, if Wikipedia is to be trusted: “My Sacrificial Clam” was filmed before “My Old Man,” meaning the two-parter was actually the last thing filmed for the season. I presume this has to do with guest star schedules, but it’s interesting to note that this might have felt like the finale to the writers/actors/etc.
- As someone who takes a lot of photographs, and who is thus rarely in photographs, I feel the existence of those photos is evidence of both my presence and my participation in those events. The photos in “My Occurrence” offer up an evocative summary of how comfortably Ben fits into the series’ dynamics.
- “If it would’ve been with the other nailgun, then yeah—the estimate would be slightly higher.”
Next week: Our coverage of Scrubs’ first season concludes with the search for a hero and the beginnings of a new chapter.