TV Review: ‘Scrubs’

01.06.09 9 years ago


It’s free agent season in major league baseball and every day you can read rumors about where certain big names are going to end up. One name who popped up the other day was future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. 

Seeing his possible destinations, I had these thoughts:

1) Ken Griffey Jr. is suddenly old. He used to be so young. This makes me feel old.

2) The team signing him isn’t getting Ken Griffey Jr. circa 1997, but their fanbase may react as if they were.

3) The odds of the team that signs Ken Griffey Jr. getting even 100 games out of him in 2009 are mighty slim, so they should pay accordingly.

4) If they right team signs Ken Griffey Jr. for the right price and he somehow stays healthy, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t somehow hit 30 home runs, because Ken Griffey Jr. still has the prettiest baseball swing I’ve ever seen. 

Then I sat down and watched the first two ABC episodes of “Scrubs” and realized, because my brain is mighty suggestible, that “Scrubs” is Ken Griffey Jr. 

Whenever I see that “Scrubs” is starting its eighth season on Tuesday (Jan. 6) night, it makes me shake my head. On one hand, “Scrubs” feels like it’s been on forever, a vestige of a time where NBC aired comedies that were simultaneously good and popular. However, because of the way NBC used and abused the series in its later years, I also can’t help but feel like there may have been whole seasons I missed when the network was airing episodes on Saturday afternoons or in three-minute bites instead of commercials.

But “Scrubs” has been on for a long time and, in its prime, it was absolutely one of the very best comedies on television. A true ensemble that could shock you into laughing at the most absurd situation one second and then make you a bit misty-eyed the next.

The “Scrubs” that moved to ABC this past off-season is not “Scrubs” at its very best. The show has been increasingly uneven in recent years and some of the most appealing characters and situations from early years have become alternatively entrenched (Turk and Carla have often deserved better) or frustratingly familiar (J.D. and Elliot again? Why?). 

The media treated ABC’s pick-up of “Scrubs” as if the network had acquired a major piece of a potential championship puzzle, as if freed from the confines of NBC’s idiotic scheduling and sporadic promotions, “Scrubs” would suddenly quaff from the Fountain of Youth and start drawing 10 million viewers per week. 

Like I said, “Scrubs” is a bit like Ken Griffey Jr. Your expectations are around five years behind the reality. 

So that sounds like I’m putting “Scrubs” down (or else like I’m spending too much time reading rumors from the Hot Stove League), but don’t forget this one thing: Like Ken Griffey Jr., “Scrubs” still has a sweet swing and sometimes, perhaps only for brief moments, Bill Lawrence and company make it feel like 2003.

In a letter to critics, Lawrence explained that the two episodes that make of the show’s ABC premiere are meant to showcase the different sides of the show. 

Indeed, “My Jerks” (Tuesday’s 9 p.m. episode) is a light and funny reintroduction to the series. If you’ve even watched a single episode of “Scrubs” in the past, “My Jerks” is an easy primer to the show’s characters and its comic rhythms. The episode introduces a slew of new interns, helpfully associated with “Facts of Life” characters by Zach Braff’s J.D., plus Courteney Cox as Dr. Maddox, the new chief of medicine.

With so much refreshing and rebooting and introducing, “My Jerk” has to be fairly mellow and traditional, which means no singing, no dancing and no Muppets. Fortunately, the second episode features singing, dancing and slo-mo fantasy scenes. Despite those elements, “My Last Words” is a trademark Serious “Scrubs” Episode, as J.D. and Turk spend a night sitting with a dying man, played by Emmy winner Glynn Turman, who’s rapidly carving out a place as TV’s most valuable guest star. 

“My Last Words” is the sort of episode that has always marked “Scrubs” as an acquired taste. Directed by Lawrence, it includes plenty of absurdity and, thanks Sam Lloyd’s Ted, several big laughs, but the bulk of the episode is Braff and Donald Faison sitting by a bed having a philosophical conversation with Turman. For “Scrubs,” earning the emotional respites — played perfectly here by Turman, Braff and Faison — has always been a challenge. That ends up being a subjective thing and what one critic (Me) might find heavy-handed, another critic (Sepinwall) might find moving. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t been moved by “Scrubs” episodes in the past, just that this isn’t necessarily the best exemplar of the species.

For all that the “Scrubs” team has put him through, Braff’s J.D. remains a largely unchanged character, albeit one now capable of using a baby picture of his son as a prop. But Braff is equally gifted at coveying J.D.’s not-so-secret love for apple-tinis, as his ongoing neediness for the respect of John C. McGinley’s Dr. Cox. My favorite scene in the two-episode premiere, in fact, was just J.D. and Cox sitting across the table relating as equals.

Speaking of Cox, though of a different kind, Courteney Cox isn’t a bad addition to the “Scrubs” team, though she suffers from a problem that isn’t uncommon for the show’s guest stars in that she tries a bit too hard, that you can see the cracks when she tries alternating between human and cartoonish. It should always be remembered that what Lawrence and the show’s writers and cast do each episode isn’t easy.

In fact, that’ll be my last piece of flogging the dead Ken Griffey Jr. analogy: One of the things about sticking around for a long time is that the further you get from your peak, the easier it is to forget that peak or at least take it for granted. Griffey went from potentially the best player in baseball history to an injury-prone afterthought in almost no time at all and was usurped in Best of the Generation discussions by Barry Bonds or Manny Ramirez. But credit should still be given.

It’s almost impossible to remember how often incredible “E.R.” was when it began or to think of “Law & Order” as anything other than a comfortable and fungible parade of New York City’s finest working actors. So it should be recognized how good “Scrubs” was and acknowledged that even in its ABC form, it still does its thing better than “E.R.” or “Law & Order” in their current incarnations.

“Scrubs” may not be on the “30 Rock” or “The Office” tier of network comedies at the moment, but it should be counted on that second level with “How I Met Your Mother,” “Big Bang Theory” and “Everybody Hates Chris.” That’s not bad.

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