Just What the Doctor Ordered
Maybe I’m just ready for a laugh, no, desperate for one, now that hell has opened up before our eyes, and that has made me a sucker for anyone coming down the pike with a comedy. But I think NBC’s new sitcom, Scrubs, is truly funny, an irreverent, witty twist on the solemn hospital drama. It challenges those expectations generated by E.R., concerning hospitals populated with larger-than-life doctors, and begs us not to take it all so seriously. It might seem like this isn’t the best time for Scrubs to make its debut, since so many pundits have declared that “irony is dead” and there is a new interest in supporting American institutions. But I think this may be the time when we need a good-natured satire all the more.
Scrubs focuses on three newly minted doctors serving as interns in a large hospital in an undisclosed location. The problem they face is that med school doesn’t really prepare new doctors for the real world, full of real live patients. All the book-learning isn’t enough when confronted with the long hours, hectic pace, and discovery that the support staff doesn’t cater to interns.
John Dorian (Zach Braff, The Broken Hearts Club) is an intern so green he needs to be mowed twice a week. He has high expectations about serving the greater good and believes that the staff should be devoted to helping him become a great doctor. He has a small problem, though: he can’t bring himself to perform any procedures that involve cutting, puncturing, suturing or injecting patients. The nurses cover for him, but how long can that last? They feel sorry for him because is he so skittish. They take to calling him “Bambi,” apparently because he freezes at critical moments, like a deer in headlights. Part of the humor is generated by our anxiety at seeing this young man so out of control. But we’re sympathetic to J.D., because he seems like a nice guy.
We’re also inclined to sympathize with his sense of dislocation: the hospital looks like a foreign world. The doctors he expects to be mentors would rather die then hear his personal problems. The chief of medicine, Dr. Bob Kelso (Ken Jenkins), who seems to be so warm and fuzzy, orders him to turn away patients without insurance, and sometimes speaks with the voice of Satan. Scrubs offers up the boss to our hostility, playing on our suspicions that our own bosses are Satanic, and letting us laugh at the guy who has the power to make our work lives hell.
J.D. searches for someone to help him navigate this Byzantine institution and discovers a “mentor” in Dr. Phil Cox (John G. McGinley), who offers the following advice: “If you push around a stiff, no one will ask you to do anything.” Clearly, Dr. Cox doesn’t want to be a mentor and certainly doesn’t want J.D. following him around like a lost puppy. Instead, he orders the interns to leave him alone and smacks them when they don’t. Maybe he cares what happens to them, but he doesn’t want anyone to know that.
J.D.‘s best friend, Chris Turk (Donald Faison, Felicity), seems to be coping so much better with their new situation that J.D. finds himself a bit jealous. While J.D. is running from pages and hiding in closets, Turk “is learning by doing,” cutting, poking, and defibrillating with gusto. Turk is “surgical,” part of an elite group of doctors motivated by cockiness, bravado, and a “god-complex.” Poor J.D. is just “medical,” and apparently not nearly the man Turk is. In fact, the first episode begins with J.D. thinking to himself, “I’m the man,” with the next 30 minutes devoted to disabusing him of that conceit.
How do we know what J.D. is thinking? First-person narration. We often see and hear events from J.D.‘s point of view, which reveals the fears and anxieties often hidden from others. When he wants to tell Turk how he feels about their crazy new schedules, he thinks, “Just tell him how you feel without sounding like a girl for once.” But hapless J.D. only blurts out, “I miss you so much, it hurts sometimes.” Poor J.D. will never be manly enough, he’ll never measure up to George Clooney.
If you don’t like fantasy scenes and you don’t want to hear the main character’s thoughts, you are not going to like this show. But if you do, you will love the juxtaposition between what J.D. thinks about doing and what he actually does. One of J.D.‘s recurring fantasies involves his fellow intern, Elliot Reid (Sarah Chalke, Roseanne). When J.D. considers asking her out, we cut to their wedding, with Sarah awash in joy, and then to them breathless after wild sex. When he thinks they may be “friends” forever, the scene cuts to him entering the “Friend Zone,” a room populated by all the geeks who wanted to date Sarah and failed. J.D.‘s hopes are macho fairy tales and the fantasy sequences create humorous tension between his desires and reality, the “Friend Zone.”
Scrubs’ sight gags are good too: J.D. asks the hospital’s lawyer a “what if” question, and the lawyer starts sweating, shaking, and grabbing for his tranquilizers, while begging J.D. to tell him he didn’t kill somebody. Representing the hospital’s extreme fear of lawsuits, this lawyer is a far cry from the aggressive go-getters of The Practice. The human body—whether sweating or in some other state of duress—is repeatedly a source of humor: it is not a holy temple to be saved at all costs, but a source of unexpected grossness. As Turk outs it, in front of a patient, “The human body is so disgusting.” When Turk shows J.D. how to set up a drain, he pokes a patient in the stomach, then runs off when fluid squirts out. While the show is chock full of slapstick and exaggerated sound effects, a notable absence is the laugh track. What a relief not to hear canned laughter covering up a lame joke.
Likely, some of this comedy is going to run afoul of viewers who have had the medical problems it lampoons or have seen loved ones treated callously by the medical profession and find the portrayal too close to home, but that I think is the point of the show. It is funny because it refuses to glamorize the medical profession. Some doctors are jerks, some are good people. Some get burned out and some create elaborate defenses to stay sane while dealing with death and suffering. J.D.‘s problem is figuring out which is which, while staying true to his idealism.
A satire of the medical system, Scrubs doesn’t present doctors as heroes and suggests that, yes, your insurance company is out to screw you. If the explosive growth of alternative medicine is any indication, anti-medical establishment feelings are growing in the U.S. Remember how the audience cheered when, in As Good As It Gets, Helen Hunt lambasted her HMO? That’s the kind of sentiment this show is counting on. Otherwise, how could the creators get away with doctors who chat over recently deceased patients, focus on the bottom line, jockey to improve their careers, all the while avoiding human contact as much as possible? This ain’t ER.