From the early weeks after 9/11 to the early years of the Great Recession, Scrubs was Bill Lawrence’s quirky, emotionally charged medical dramedy focusing on the launch of an emotional young doctor’s career. Sandwiched between two of America’s biggest 21st century crises, Scrubs was goofy, imaginative, and light-hearted; but at its finest, Scrubs shone with emotionally visceral moments. Unfortunately, due to writing and network conflicts, Scrubs‘ later seasons lose the show’s original vision, focusing instead on romantic couples, indie rock, and non-sequitors. The last three seasons of Scrubs show a writing staff unsure when or how to end a show, with the finales of seasons 6-9 respectively being an increasingly less satisfying series ending than the oft-bemoaned ninth season. Perhaps an attempt to return the show to its roots, Scrubs: Med School axes most of the beloved regular cast, leaving room for Zach Braff to be replaced by a blonde girl, and James Franco’s younger brother to provide a truly skeezy, silver-spoon baby doc.
Numerous factors could be blamed: network marketing pressures to keep up with contemporary TV trends (visual non-sequiturs, up-to-the-minute current events humor, and frequent celebrity guest stars, as made popular by Family Guy, South Park, and numerous shows but also 2000’s Simpsons, respectively), Zach Braff’s ego machine, or network instability, as expressed during the Writer’s Guild of America Strikes in 2007, and the subsequent move from NBC to ABC. Originally framed as an innovative look at the contemporary world of medicine — at a time when the viewing public essentially had ER, General Hospital, and Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman to inform them of the goings-on in the modern medical scene — Scrubs eventually became a bloated mess of two dimensional stock characters and zany non-sequitur “fantasties.”
Being one who serial watches shows on repeat, and being one young enough to say I grew up watching the show, witnessing Scrubs‘ slow-yet-gradual quality decline was upsetting. The first three to five seasons of the show demonstrate the best character development, situation dramas, and even non-sequitur fantasies. In these seasons, J.D. can still be viewed as a sensitive young man, learning about life, women, and medicine; as the fifth season passes, J.D. is in his thirties, aware he views all women posing in breezy stripteases to sexy, high octane rock music. Indeed, by looking past Scrubs‘ base story, numerous fascinating narratives emerge: not just the rich & complicated stories of the supporting cast — best friend/maybe lover Turk’s journey as a black surgeon, Turk’s wife Carla’s struggles with mental illness, their turbulent and sometimes rocky relationship, to name only three — but thematic tales exposed through critical lenses.
Longtime Scrubs fans may know the Janitor’s alternate history. Watch the first three seasons if you’ve never heard this: surely an inventive series ending, right? But, in a world where cinema has only a base-at-best understanding of what it calls “craziness,” is it possible that we’re watching nine series of a young doctor struggle with a nearly debilitating mental illness the best way he knows how? What if the non-sequitur “fantasy” segments are delusional lapses from reality?
Throughout the initial first three seasons, the Janitor and J.D.’s “day-dreaming” are initially infrequent, limited only to respective solitude and/or illustrating visual metaphors (e.g. feeling “hit with a load of bricks,” J.D.’s temporary reality lapse has him signing for a load of bricks to be dropped on him from a delivery service in a patient’s room, before cutting to commercials). The first three seasons are more focused on J.D. & Turk’s journey from intern to full-fledged doctor; J.D.’s affects on his superiors, Dr. Cox & Dr. Kelso; and J.D.’s on/off girlfriend Elliot, and her journey from insecure girlhood to semi-secure womanhood. But as the series progresses, the “fantasies” grow more vivid, progressing to where staff members are aware of J.D.’s all-consuming lapses from reality, and act accordingly when the young doctor is enraptured by his mind (some play pranks on him, others are left helpless until he snaps back to reality). Perhaps the progression of an undiagnosed mental disorder? During the middle seasons, J.D. increasingly unaware that his “fantasies” are ongoing, resulting in abrupt outbursts in front of his patients and colleagues. In the show’s last true season, even J.D. is fully aware of his “fantasies,” to the point where some even seem involuntary (e.g. the introduction of Courtney Cox as the chief of medicine. J.D. is aware of his aforementioned fetishization, and quickly grows bored, despite the fantasy continuing).
In fact, if someone (other than me, someone with the time & Internet skillz) were to cut internal monologues and non-sequiturs from Scrubs, the viewer would be left with a show about a young male doctor’s increasingly frequent lapses from reality, and how he fails to fully recognize his mentor’s codependent relationship with his ex-wife; his best friends’ troubled marriage, with one seeking help for mental health issues; and the psychological and emotional obstacle course he and his kinda-sorta girlfriend run, culminating in a lukewarm, who-even-cares relationship for the series finale.
As her own woman, Elliot Reid was an ambitious and naive intern, shaken by her first years as a doctor, but ultimately creating an identity outside of her domineering family and growing into a strong, confident doctor. Until she finally gets her man and throws it all away to become a cliche stock character. In fact, Elliot — and the story of Scrubs — become immediately more fascinating if we see J.D. justifying her as a woman, when in fact, she’s really a man, being incorrectly perceived by a mentally unbalanced man with sexual identity issues. What if J.D. visualizes all of his male partners as out-of-his league attractive women?
A stretch? Overthinking? Sure. But, what are the odds that a proper Connecticut family would really name their Aryan daughter a man’s name? What are the odds that jokes & comments about J.D.’s sexuality only begin after the introduction of a guest doctor played by an actor who was believed straight, but turned out not to be , and grow more prominent as the show — and J.D.’s mental illness — progress? In fact, with the exception of Kim, the woman who was shown giving birth to J.D.’s baby, and Lisa, the woman with whom J.D. experienced erectile dysfunction, why do all of his girlfriends have gender neutral names? Eliot, Alex, Kylie, Danni, Jordan, Jamie, Julie (Jules), Nina (Niño?) . . ?
Anyone who spent time In the Closet could likely attest that, as they attempted to maintain the appearance of straight, anxieties surrounding someone discovering their true sexual identity grew to the point where they might see an accusation in an insinuation, an insinuation in a joke, or otherwise overreact. With Zach Braff having played both gay and mentally ill characters before & during the early seasons of Scrubs, respectively, we see a series of uncanny coincidences, and anyone who spent time In the Closet can say a thing or two about “uncanny coincidences.”
With the advent of reality television and the popularity of up-to-the-minute current events humor, writers and producers found themselves trying to capture a story as quickly as possible, most of the time unaware of the additional stories they would create once time distanced the reality created. Through this logic, it is possible that Lawrence’s team unknowingly told a cohesive meta-tale on metal illness and sexual repression, just two of many narratives lying within Scrubs. In the end, whether you’re a serial watcher or an occasional viewer, a show about life in a hospital* can teach you about the world of medicine, socio-economic tales in the era before Obamacare, or about the inner workings of a sexually repressed white boy.
Or not. That’s the beauty of postmodern analysis, no?
*See what I did there?