Left for dead more often than Chad Pennington and resurrected more often than Lazarus, “Scrubs” returns to ABC on Tuesday (Dec. 1) night with a two-episode premiere that sets the groundwork for the comedy’s new structure.
While “Scrubs” has luckily survived “bubble” status each of the past four or five springs, even taking the extreme step of hopping networks last year, this is the first time that the series has come back in a markedly different form. Whether you choose to call the new incarnation “AfterScrubs” or “Scrubs: The Paper Chase” or “Scrubs 2: Electric Scrubaloo” or “Scrubs: The New Class” or “Scrubs on Skates” or Bill Lawrence’s preferred “Scrubs [Med School],” the series launching on Tuesday sounds exactly like “Scrubs,” looks a little like “Scrubs” but also feels oddly different.
The result is a sometimes disorienting viewing experience. I’d almost compare it to watching those Robert Zemeckis motion capture movies he keeps insisting on putting out. Sometimes you think you’re seeing something something recognizable and genuinely “Scrubs”-ian, but other times you’re seeing something ersatz, an attempt to be “Scrubs”-ian without actually being “Scrubs.” It may be the sitcom equivalent of the uncanny valley. Or maybe not.
[Full review of “Scrubs” after the break…]
In addition to an assortment of fresh faces in its cast, “Scrubs” returns with a new reworking of “I’m No Superman,” a new version of the credits and a new collectivist ethos, represented in the show’s new episode-title nomenclature, launching with “Our First Day Of School,” a take-off on the pilot’s “My First Day” and the the 160+ episode titles beginning with “My.”
There’s a transition in process as “Scrubs” turns its focus to a new crop of students at Sacred Heart’s medical school. The new class includes insecure Lucy (Kerry Bishe), former med school burnout Drew (Michael Mosley) and cocky Cole (Dave Franco), who comes from a long line of wealthy Sacred Heart donors and, thus, is untouchable. Helping this new trio in their studies are all of the remaining “Scrubs” castmates who were available and whose new pilots weren’t picked up this past spring. So that means that Turk (Donald Faison), Dr. Cox (John C. McGinley) and endearingly dyspeptic Denise (Eliza Coupe) are back in the fold in new mentor roles, as are Dr. Kelso and, at least in the early going, Zach Braff’s J.D.
Braff and J.D. had always been the series’ primary voice and POV and a decision was made to use Braff at the start of the season to help ease the segue. In “Our First Day of School” and “Our Drunk Friend,” JD splits voiceover duties with Lucy, who begins her studies with a very similar desperate desire to please, predilection toward errors or misjudgment and, presumably potential. As the season progresses and Braff is phased out, Bishe will take solo narration responsibilities.
Having a female equivalent to JD become the focal point of the show is just one example of his Bill Lawrence and company are pushing “Scrubs” into new territory without usually making it distinctive enough as a new entity.
In early exposition, we’re told that a year has passed since the last finale, which explains why, after that epic and tear-filled departure, JD is suddenly back at Sacred Heart, where the old hospital has been torn down and replaced with a new, slightly shinier, set. Sepinwall assures me that because Sacred Heart has always been a teaching hospital, Turk and Cox and JD had always been teaching classes in this manner, but we’d just never seen it before. It’s like we’d been seeing the majority of their workdays previously and this is the sliver that had been cut out. It’s strange and not completely satisfying as an explanation for the new framing of the show.
Frankly, it would have been less distracting if the surviving castmembers had been airlifted to Jamaica and become resort doctors, still mentoring new trainees, but solving comical medical mysteries in Hawaiian shirts and cargo shorts.
Or maybe it would have been less distracting if the writers had chosen a main character with markedly different personality traits from JD. I get the need to have a recognizably sympathetic character at the the center and I understand that having a sentimentalist as our hero gives the writers license for both the fantasy sequences — Lucy’s imagination is comparable to JD’s — and for other characters to be more arch and less cuddly. But if Braff often over-played JD’s man-child innocence (intentionally), Bishe is also over-playing Lucy’s wide-eyed aspect. Making the new lead a different “type” would have helped clarify how this “Scrubs” is a different series, rather than giving the sensation that the writers put JD in a dress (an unfair comparison, since Bishe is far cuter than Braff in drag).
While Braff really was the star of “Original Flavor Scrubs,” with the other characters orbiting him at regular intervals, Bishe (one of my favorite parts of FOX’s “Virtuality” pilot/telefilm) is just a first among equals here. While Coupe was a late addition to the old “Scrubs” she’s a known quantity and her razor-edged sarcasm are still a strength, however in pushing Denise into more of a leading role, she’s been much too quickly softened in a way that seems to sacrifice some of her core. Mosley is solid as well, responsible for bringing out one of the new season’s truly fresh dynamics with Cox. And as much as I’ve enjoyed Franco in small roles on “Greek” and “Privileged,” it’s great to see him playing an out-and-out ass, rather than a goofy, slightly toasted sidekick. [A fourth new classmate is played by Nicky Whalen, but I’m not ready to acknowledge her as a regular until she gets to be part of a single punchline unrelated to her Aussie accent or her hotness.]
The old characters aren’t as well deployed. McGinley’s Cox-isms are so familiar by now that I’d actually hoped he was going to get a chance to do a new character on a different show this season. And the odds of Faison finding enough to do once Braff makes a permanent exit are low. More than anything, I immediately found myself missing Sarah Chalke, whose Elliot appears in the premiere’s opening moments mostly to explain why we won’t be seeing her again for a while. Oh and who’d have guessed that Neil Flynn would find a way to be otherwise occupied before Braff? The Janitor is sorely missed.
I could keep complaining about how “off” the new “Scrubs” feels, but that doesn’t really extend to the writing or the overall tone of the show. “Scrubs” hasn’t been *consistently* funny for years, but it’s always been endearingly hit-and-miss, which has been enough. And that continues to be the case. There are still laughs to be hand and the series has built up a great reserve of warm over the years. I enjoyed watching the season’s first two episodes as any over the past couple seasons and fans of the show aren’t going to cease to be fans.
What the overhauls haven’t done is noticeably reinvigorated the show. The presence of all of these old stars, largely on cruise control, keeps the infusion of new blood from taking hold completely. An entirely different group of doctors and mentors at an entirely different teaching hospital might have been liberating, but it probably wouldn’t have let Lawrence keep using the “Scrubs” brand name, not that the “Scrubs” brand name brings a meaningful audience with it anymore. So fans will have to be happy to have “Scrubs” back at all, even in a version that isn’t exactly the “Scrubs” they know and love.
“Scrubs” returns at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 1 to ABC.