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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Scrubs: “My Dirty Secret”/“My Rule of Thumb”

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“My Dirty Secret” (season 3, episode 9; originally aired 12/11/2003)

Scrubs is a typical example of a show that straddles the line between episodic and serial. On the one hand, it’s possible to watch a single episode of Scrubs from any season and—95% of the time—get a clear beginning, middle, and end: “My Dirty Secret,” for instance, offers J.D. and Dr. Cox’s relationship with prostate cancer patient Mr. Randolph (played by Barry Bostwick) alongside an overarching story about the role sex plays in the lives of our characters in light of their respective personal and professional conflicts—simple enough. However, on the other hand, it also inexplicably travels back in time to a period when Jack was still a few months old and Sean was still in California, violating key ongoing storylines in the third season.

The fact that Scrubs could be categorized as episodic likely gave NBC the license to push the episode until later in the season once it was initially pre-empted, potentially to—I’m speculating based on research—avoid competing against Game 7 of the ALCS. You normally could have simply pushed every episode back a week, but Jeff Zucker’s love for supersized episodes and their importance to his Sweeps strategy meant “My Lucky Night” needed to stay where it was, and “My Dirty Secret” got pushed to mid-December (pushing “My Rule Of Thumb,” set around Christmas albeit without any seasonal storylines, into January).

Airing out of order doesn’t exactly ruin “My Dirty Secret,” which is a rather complex episode where storylines are constantly folding in on one another. Elliot’s sexual repression merges with Carla’s inability to take criticism, the Janitor’s inability to find new ways to make fun of J.D. leads to him searching for a new nemesis and using Turk’s apprehension about Carla’s “No sex until the wedding” plan against him, while Cox’s issues with Jordan feed through the strong Mr. Randolph storyline. Rather than feeling like a collection of different stories we visit in isolation, the episode shifts characters around to make their storylines more dynamic: When Cox crashes at J.D. and Turk’s apartment, it’s both a chance for Cox to punish J.D. for meddling in his relationship with Jordan and a chance for Turk to vent to both Cox and J.D. about his own issues with Carla.

It’s an impressively cohesive episode, which is exactly why its incongruities with the ongoing narrative are so disarming. When the episode is doing so much work to pull different storylines together, never really allowing one to emerge as a definitive A-story, that work becomes undermined when you realize how the narrative has regressed. Even if Scrubs is not so aggressively serial that you can’t appreciate the show out of order (which is how many likely experienced it in syndication), the beginning of the third season introduced elements that clearly mark time and character development; Sean showing up with Sea World ticket, Jack magically shrinking (and his parents’ relationship regressing), and J.D. not being in a relationship all work to pull you out of an episode that depends on you being more invested. This doesn’t make it a bad episode, necessarily, but it definitely strips it of some of its potential, and limits its ability to tie into some of the overarching discussions we’ve been exploring over the course of the season.

“My Rule Of Thumb” (season 3, episode 10; originally aired 01/22/2004)

That being said, we’re at the point in the season where those discussions have stalled a bit, although that appears to have become part of the series’ strategy. “My Rule Of Thumb” is technically another installment in J.D.’s relationship with Danni, who is tired of awkwardly interrupting Cox and Jordan having sex and decides she should crash with J.D. instead. However, it’s another episode that never gives the characters a real chance to interact (with many of their scenes together happening in J.D.’s fantasies), continuing to pose questions about why the two characters are in a relationship. J.D. says during their lunch date—at the hospital—that it’s wonderful how they’ve reached the point where they don’t even need to speak to one another, and it’s the first moment where it feels like the show and J.D. are making separate arguments: While J.D. seems to have convinced himself this is a good sign for their relationship, the scene itself portrays a stagnant relationship reflective of their lack of chemistry. As the episode progresses, J.D. comes to see it in the same light, convinced by Cox and Ted that Danni “crashing” at his place will lead to them moving in together. He tries to back out, chickens out, and then ends the episode in the fetal position as Danni puts her toothbrush in his bathroom.


It’s the beginning of the end for a relationship that never had a middle, which is why—despite J.D.’s default importance to the series’ narrative—it’s arguably the C-story in “My Rule Of Thumb.” The episode is anchored around the return of the triangle of sorts between Dr. Cox, Turk, and Carla, although this time without any kind of romance involved. Instead, the storyline explores the level of respect between the two men Carla trusts most, building a difficult medical case to force the two characters into atypical positions. From Cox’s perspective, Turk is punishing Cox for disliking him by refusing to allow his patient to get his liver due to a small technicality (a few glasses of champagne when those on the transplant list have to abstain entirely); from Turk’s perspective, Cox is blinded by his relationship with his patient and isn’t considering the importance of the rules to the other people on the same transplant list. It starts as what seems like an easy way to explore the tension between the two men, but it ends up speaking to larger issues of how medical doctors and surgeons approach their patients differently, a discussion that gives Cox a new respect for Turk and resolves any “rivalry” without necessarily turning the characters into best friends.

After noting a lack of patient-centered stories thus far this season, “My Rule Of Thumb” offers two, with Cox’s transplant patient Mr. Iverson (played by Ed’s Mike Starr) joined by Elliot’s terminal and virginal patient Maggie. The storyline is mostly an excuse for male stripper fantasies and the farce of Carla and Elliot being arrested for trying to solicit a prostitute (I enjoy the pullout to reveal their arrest), but it’s also a nice chance to have a storyline become a win for the hapless Ted. When he’s rescued from his perch at the top of the building by Cox’s good mood—owing to his transplant patient getting a liver—it feels like another case of using Ted for a cheap joke. But when he drops by Maggie’s room to assist with her will, he gets some rare encouragement, and it’s not a huge surprise when he ends up in her room at episode’s end. What is a surprise is that it’s never treated as a joke: although Ted will always be pitiable (he’ll end up back on the roof next week), here he does something admirable but also self-fulfilling, a much-needed win for a character that deserved one after losing his chair to Baxter.


Stray observations:

  • I had forgotten how far out of order “My Dirty Secret” aired, which made me think about whether I should have reviewed it where it was supposed to go narratively. However, given that the DVDs/Netflix retain the order, it’s logical to approach the show as it aired.
  • Netflix Music Rights Watch: The Janitor’s use of “We Don’t Have To Talk Our Clothes Off” stays out of necessity, but J.D.’s fantasy of Elliot making out with a patient loses Bryan Adams’ “When You Really Love a Woman.”
  • “No to black or no to whale?”—Turk comes around on the “Black Whale” nickname in the episode, but that one didn’t catch on overall.
  • Storylines featuring “novel” technologies will always seem dated, but Elliot’s new camera phone is most notable for how the show has no interest in pretending they care how camera phones actually work.
  • I had forgotten that Randall, who will quickly become part of the janitorial staff, first appeared as a crotch-punching dwarf patient here.
  • Elliot’s inability to say sexual terms infantilizes the character more than I’d like, but I really need to start using “Bingleboar.”
  • Another week, another Queer Eye For The Straight Guy reference. I hope Bravo paid them for that one, at least.

Next time on Scrubs: A clean break for a failed relationship, and the arrival of Michael J. Fox.