Throughout Scrubs run, doctors and nurses suffer from the guilt of making mistakes or overlooking symptoms, emotional blows that couldn’t be brushed off. In “My Screw Up” or “My Long Goodbye,” the characters find that their experience with death can’t prepare them for when a loved one dies, while the season six arc with a wounded Iraq War veteran leads to frank discussions of suicide. Though, in another example of the show’s ricocheting tones, those frank discussions are intercut with warring versions of a memory.

Even Cox cracks under the pressure in “My Lunch,” the start of a multipart story where he sinks into a depression after three organ recipients die on his watch. Because death was a constant presence on the show, Scrubs was inordinately concerned with what it means to live a worthwhile life, a subject that lends itself to ecstasy and profundity in equal measure. When the unique alchemy of its frivolity and emotion were in sync, Scrubs produced some of the best sitcom episodes of the 21st century.


It also wasn’t afraid to get wonky. Storylines tackled big topics like industry sexism, the role of money in medicine, and right-to-die issues, as well as more granular ones: the question of whether a patient is a scheming addict or in genuine need of painkillers, a surgeon not wanting to perform a risky-but-necessary procedure for fear of hurting her success stats, and aging doctors endangering patients by adhering to outdated treatment techniques. Personal and philosophical rivalries existed between the doctors and nurses, the surgical and medical teams, between the staff and administrators. Those who work in the medical field have described it as one of the most accurate televised depictions of the industry, and that gives it a complexity that hasn’t been replicated, especially compared to recent conflict-averse comedies. The equivalent today would be a show like Brooklyn Nine-Nine dealing explicitly with police brutality or racial profiling.

It could handle these weightier topics, but Scrubs wasn’t good with edgier humor. The bits about race range from cringeworthy to worse—as in a misguided blackface joke—and the show rarely did right by its female characters. While Elliott began in the competent-and-committed-yet-vulnerable Liz Lemon/Leslie Knope/Amy Santiago template, she became over-the-top as the show went on; it’s genuinely dispiriting to watch her initial nuance and insecurities devolve into storylines where she’s boy-crazy about bland love interests. There’s also something ugly in the soap-opera arc given to guest star Elizabeth Banks, who lies about having a miscarriage, or in the generally monstrous depiction of Cox’s ex-wife, Jordan (Christa Miller).


Those issues are symptomatic of how the show, like most long-running comedies, grew untenably broad with time. Its fantasy sequences moved from Ally McBeal-esque exaggerations—to illustrate Elliot’s “put me in, coach!” enthusiasm, season one showed her in a catcher’s uniform—to extended Family Guy-style cutaway gags. But at its best, that broadness coexisted with the drama. In the finest moment from “My Musical”—perhaps the show’s finest half hour—the gang’s self-centered oblivion is forced to a screeching halt by a patient asking the simplest of questions—what’s going to happen? As everyone regains their bedside manner, Scrubs’ place in history becomes clear: No other show this goofy ever hit the tear ducts this hard.