Regular airtime: Tuesdays, 9pm ET (NBC)
Cast: Zach Braff, Sarah Chalke, Donald Faison, Ken Jenkins, John C. McGinley, Judy Reyes
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Several times over the course of Scrubs’ fifth season, J.D.‘s (Zach Braff) disembodied head floated around, tormenting his own body and others’. These bits are rarely anything more than just plain goofy, but they actually do something quite clever: they offer viewers the perfect visual metaphor for what J.D. has been doing during this and all the other seasons. As doctor and narrator, he oscillates between his head and his body.
And with this oscillation, Scrubs balances two genres, smart-alec sitcom and character-driven medical drama. Just when you thought that Dr. Cox (John C. McGinley) had zung J.D. with his last girl’s name, that Carla (Judy Reyes) had no-you-didn’ted Turk (Donald Faison) once and for all, that Elliot (Sarah Chalke) had permanently stuck her foot in her mouth or that J.D. had prat-fallen down for good, it’s nimble once again. I’ve been suspicious of this agility, as well as amazed that I’ve come to care for the patient-of-the-week structure and the esoteric humor (“Vampires like it windy”). But Scrubs remains spunky, intelligent, and (mostly) watchable.
The fifth season was about loss and conception. It’s no coincidence that the death of three of Sacred Heart’s patients in one shift coincides with the three babies baking in their respective ovens: Carla, Dr. Cox’s babymama Jordan (Christa Miller), and J.D.‘s urologist flame Kim (Elizabeth Banks). The results of this plot tweak were equal parts predictable and inventive.
The ploy was not surprising. After all, nothing secures an audience (at least for another nine months) quite like new babies. So, in the season finale, Jordan and Dr. Cox celebrated their son Jack’s graduation out of diapers—openly lamenting the often romanticized “baby phase” of child-rearing—by passing all of their “baby crap” on to Turk and Carla. Still high-fiving one another over this first step in their incremental liberation from the pressures of parenthood, Jordan and Cox found they were unexpectedly expecting again because of a botched vasectomy. Instead of indulging in an aw-shucks, warm and fuzzy typical TV moment, they were devastated, a glorious contrast to Carla’s militant pregnancy mission, oh-so tedious during the first half of the season.
J.D.‘s next step was less sanguine. Amid rumors that this would be the final season, Scrubs engineered a cliffhanger ending: “J.D., I’m pregnant.” It’s hard to imagine this unplanned pregnancy won’t resolve itself in some acceptable fashion, considering J.D. and Kim are neither teenagers nor adulterers, or even Christians for that matter. The larger cliffhanger is J.D.‘s impending maturation. Could a baby get this manchild to grow up when so many ladies have failed, season after season?
This season was no exception: J.D.‘s midseason romance with klutzy-but-cute Julie (played by Braff’s real-life gf Mandy Moore) just clunked along. His contention that she never laughed (with his material this season I don’t quite blame her) was ridiculous, demonstrating again that he has intimacy issues. J.D. is always most troubling when he’s trying to hook up (and I don’t mean an I.V.—that was Season One). J.D., gleefully attending scooter rallies and doggedly filming his indie-horror opus Dr. Acula are a change from J.D., the tail-chasing poon-hound of which we catch sporadic glimpses. Turk has noted that women are invisible to J.D. if they’re wearing wedding rings, though it would be more accurate to say that women are invisible to J.D. unless they’re guest stars. It often feels like he’s forced to interrupt playtime with his friends when he has to start wooing, like a little boy kicking the dirt when Mom calls him in from outside at dinnertime.
Yet, it’s exactly J.D.‘s pre-pubescence that makes him non-threatening and somehow compelling as a romantic lead. It is also why he’s plain icky when putting on the moves, like a boy and his babysitter. In his defense, since day one, it’s no wonder J.D. has remained so boyish, considering he has been notoriously emasculated whether receiving a prescription for two testicles, accessing his inner anger by repeatedly listening to Jagged Little Pill, or negotiating the homoerotic tension between him and Turk. J.D.‘s desires are in question so often that he’s less possibly homosexual than asexual. His murky sexuality is no surprise considering that Scrubs has always openly played around with sex and gender; as evidence, you need look no further than character’s names (see: Elliot or Dr. Cox) or The Todd’s (Robert Maschio) never-ending innuendo.
However, what Scrubs lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in pluck. The late-season Wizard of Oz homage, “My Way Home” (Dorothy being another pop culture icon that, by association, complicates J.D.‘s sexuality) showcased the strong writing and firm grasp these actors have on their characters, had J.D. finding his way home, Elliot a brain, Carla courage, and Turk a heart. Scrubs is at its best when in conversation with the outside world, taking risks and fully utilizing the strength of its ensemble cast.
Amid the occasional breakthrough episode, somewhere near the season’s halfway mark, something felt stale. I knew all the cues: when Dr. Kelso (Ken Jenkins) would snark, when the Janitor (Neil Flynn) would quip, when J.D. would daydream, when the Garden State-esque music would prompt the episode-ending crane shot montage. With a show this peculiar, it’s another balancing act not to caricaturize itself into oblivion. And although such consistency is somehow comforting, it also runs the risk of monotony by giving audiences exactly they expect week after week.
And then something happened. The ingenious episode, “My Déjà vu, My Déjà vu,” brought to the foreground what viewers were all sensing, that it felt like we’d seen this before, and, well, we had. The Scrubsters spent the entire episode recycling “best bits,” not in typical flashbacks, but rather in self-aware homage. J.D. went through his day at Sacred Heart unable to shake the feeling that I’ve heard this somewhere before and it worked brilliantly, as we were reminded just why we loved seasons past. Unfortunately, such self-referencing often marks the early rumblings of the cancellation implosion (see: Arrested Development). Still, with the plot-driven momentum of the episodes following “Déjà vu,” Scrubs’ prognosis seems excellent for a healthy Season Six.