About a year ago, you couldn’t pick up a newspaper or turn on the television without hearing someone singing Zach Braff’s praises. Garden State had critics acclaiming his first-time direction and performance as Andrew Largeman, trying to get in where he fits in and jonesing for some Amidal-ass. A bunch of them even labeled it the “defining film of this generation.”
Now, I’m not saying those reviewers were wrong. I’m just saying that if they were surprised at Braff’s ability to articulate the alternating terror and transcendence of realizing that you’re an adult joining your life already in progress, then they never watched a single minute of Scrubs. Yeah, Garden State was sweet and everything, but dude’s been killing it like this since 2001. Where’ve you been?
Just watch Scrubs‘ 24-episode first season — now out on DVD — and try not to make the trek to Jersey in your head. The road map is there: the strained relationship between Dr. John Dorian and his dad (in an excellent guest spot by the late John Ritter); the inability to commit to a potentially fulfilling relationship with Elliot (Sarah Chalke, Roseanne‘s replacement Becky); the near-crippling doubts that sidetrack his journey to manhood. Hell, both film and show even feature the same song, the Shins’ “New Slang” — when Large starts to fall for Natalie Portman’s Sam, and when J.D. and his fellow first-year doctors start to stabilize in “My Balancing Act,” Scrubs‘ 13th episode. But if Braff did crib material from his day job, it’s hard to fault him; he couldn’t have found a better template for smart comedy and compelling drama than Scrubs, which is, at its worst, a competent sitcom, and at its best, a shortlist candidate for best scripted program of the post-Seinfeld era.
In the micro sense, Scrubs tells the story of J.D., Elliot, and Chris Turk (Donald Faison), three sweet and funny doctors fresh out of med school, now interns at Sacred Heart Hospital. The actors bring charisma by the truckload, particularly the excellent John C. McGinley as brilliant and combustible resident Perry Cox, equally ready to incinerate a lowly “newbie” and serve as a grudging mentor to J.D. The writers get the most out of a joke, whether it’s Cox’s penchant for calling J.D. by girls’ names (which, McGinley says in a DVD interview, is something he does with his friends) or J.D.’s apparent destiny to give him reason to, like unconsciously adopting a jealous girlfriend’s voice to tell Turk that he “misses [him] so much it hurts sometimes” (which is on page 12 of The Guys Handbook, under “Stuff You Don’t Say To Your Boys”).
But it’s the macro view (in my mind, the single greatest advantage afforded by the recent boom of TV-on-DVD releases) that reveals what makes Scrubs something pretty special. It is a show about learning who you are on the fly, everyday, all the time. The characters repeatedly confront who they think they are, who think they want to be, and what they think they want amid the incredibly volatile collisions of life and death they see on a daily basis. Then they attempt to integrate what they’ve learned with their preconceptions in order to reach a synthesis they can define as their own identities. (If you think that sounds Hegelian, then we’re on the same page.) Scrubs‘ commitment to that journey of self-discovery makes it television’s most accurate and enjoyable reflection of the personal, professional, and emotional problems of young people neck-deep in uncertainty.
The show often diverges from comedy, and it’s a testament to both creator Bill Lawrence’s vision and the writers’ talents that Scrubs never feels forced when it does. When the doctors first experience the death of patients in “My Old Lady,” the pain they feel is softened by gallows humor: J.D. envisions himself losing a Connect Four game to the Grim Reaper, responding, “Pretty sneaky, Death!” As Cox explains it, “Everything we do here, everything, is a stall. We’re just trying to keep the game going. But, ultimately, it always ends up the same way.” In “My Blind Date,” when Cox’s bid for “a perfect game” — keeping every patient in the ICU alive for the duration of his 24-hour shift — falls apart with only four minutes to go, he tells Elliot that his pursuit of excellence can’t end because “another game’s starting in four minutes.” But he betrays disappointment behind his rah-rah speech.
At times, Scrubs even borders on depressing, most notably when reviled Chief of Medicine Bob Kelso (Ken Jenkins) tells a psychologist about his marriage in “My Bed, Banter, and Beyond.” After explaining that his wife once wanted to be a psychiatrist, but they both decided it wasn’t a “fitting profession for a family woman,” Kelso says, “She likes to joke that I choked the last breath of life out of her long ago, that now she’s just a shell of a woman.” After an uncomfortable laugh, he continues, “I think that’s so cute, I call her Shelley. You know, when I call her that, she laughs so hard she cries.” It’s cringe television, almost unbearable, and supremely affecting, especially in the context of the whirlwind disintegration of J.D. and Elliot’s relationship, the episode’s A-story.
The actors reward the show’s creators for the space they’re given by growing to fill it. In an interview, Lawrence says he really liked “the idea that the guy playing the lead, who was a character in way over his head, not really knowing if he could handle his first day of work, would be played by an actor who was in way over his head, insecure and not sure if he could handle carrying a show.” The gamble paid off in a major way, with Scrubs becoming a surprise hit and Braff ascending to the ranks of, in Lawrence’s words, “a huge star who can buy and sell all of us.”
But despite Braff’s role as Scrubs‘ lightning rod, the cast is a legit ensemble. Chalke and Faison are equally fine as supporting players or when promoted to the front lines (Chalke in “My Blind Date” and Faison in “My Own Personal Jesus”). Judy Reyes, who plays Carla, Turk’s girlfriend, serves as the show’s rhythm section, always rock-solid as a baseboard for J.D.’s insecurities, Elliot’s overboard neuroses, or Turk’s macho chest beating. And guest stars like Sean Hayes (as a golden-boy intern), Christa Miller (as Cox’s ex-wife), Scott Foley (as Elliot’s boyfriend Sean), and Brendan Fraser (as Jordan’s brother Ben) never seem to mug, or preen, or overpower — well, no more than Fraser usually mugs.
The lack of a star dynamic exemplifies the dominant theme of this debut season: that all of us belong somewhere, and though the process of discovering that place is hard, it’s the reason we get up every morning. Scrubs gives its viewers what its characters want most, a shelter from the fears that keep us awake at night, and the belief that you can find your place, if you can just get out of your own way long enough to start the trip.