Posted by Jesse February 4th, 2009 at 10:30am In General
Scrubs recently began its eighth, possibly final season, also its first on new home ABC. The default response to any non-smash sitcom in its eighth season could probably be described as indifferent, but I’ve noticed a pretty strong disdain for Scrubs among the kinds of TV watchers who cherish the likes of its onetime NBC stablemates The Office or 30 Rock — that is to say, people like me. Generally, people like me do not care for Scrubs at all, probably because it’s cutesy, sometimes venturing into mawkish or grotesque.
But I have to give the show some credit for doing a lot of stuff right without a shield of hipness. When it debuted back in 2001, it was a single-camera comedy in the waning years of Friends; it wove in earnest, sometimes sentimental drama and surreal cutaways like some kind of weird cross between The Wonder Years and The Simpsons; and as cartoonish as the broader material can be, the characters have always seemed more or less believable to me — I’m particularly fond of the show’s goofily affectionate portrait of male friendship between J.D. (Zach Braff) and Turk (Donald Faison). My vague respect solidified when a med student friend said that even with all of the wackiness, Scrubs, not ER or House or any other one-hour drama, comes closest to the actual experience of working in a hospital.
I use the word “vague” because I don’t say any of this as a diehard Scrubs fan, though it seems such people do exist. In fact, I’m not sure there’s a recent show I’ve logged more hours in front of that I know less about. With other second-tier sitcoms, I know the score: I know I watched the first two or three seasons of That 70s Show, and then stopped. I know I lost track of Frasier circa the Niles-Daphne consummation, maybe a little before.
Scrubs is less concrete. I caught a few episodes during its first few seasons, and liked them, and eventually decided a few years ago to watch the first season straight through on Netflix. I did it, and still liked it well enough, but it didn’t hold my interest enough to carry me through the second season (I think I watched a disc or two of that, though). Since then, it’s gone into syndication, and Comedy Central rotation, and in and out of timeslots adjacent to shows I like more, always somewhere in my peripheral TV vision. Right now it’s on my local Fox affiliate at midnight, right after The Simpsons kicks off bedtime, so there are episodes of Scrubs I’ve seen two or three or four times, and other episodes where I’ve seen the first ten minutes approximately eighteen times and still don’t exactly know how they end, and still other episodes where I think I’ve only seen the first half but realize I know the whole thing, possibly because the show continues to beam into the useless portion of my brain even after I’ve drifted off to sleep.
Yet there are also huge stretches of the run that I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen, and I’m not even entirely show where they take place: maybe the middle of the third season, or around the end of the fourth? I know J.D.’s interim girlfriends have included Tara Reid, Heather Graham, Mandy Moore, and a less-famous black chick, and I couldn’t tell you much about any of them. When I DVR’d some of the new eighth-season episodes (a few weeks into the season because, of course, I had forgotten exactly when it was coming back), I realized I wasn’t sure how many kids Carla and Turk have, or Dr. Cox and Jordan for that matter, or how old any of those hypothetical kids are, or how many times J.D. and Elliot have dated or what happened to the people they were thinking of marrying at different points. Right now, they’re dating again, and it doesn’t seem to be a big deal. It’s kinda confusing.
But somehow, my fuzziness as to the chronological of details of the Scrubs world feels sort of pleasant when I do tune in. I’m sure some would argue this has to do with the show not bearing much scrutiny, which is probably at least partially true — or maybe my fair-weather viewing leaves me impervious to the repetition that becomes clearer over time, the kind of subtle boredom that derailed my DVD experiment. But the show’s mix of soap and repetition also makes the character seem more weirdly human: their lives grow and change in some areas, and remain absolutely recognizable in others. TV characters are often described as the audience’s friends (an identification tendency that probably reached its apex at the height of a certain aforementioned smash hit sitcom — what was it called? Ah yes, Inside Schwartz). The characters on Scrubs are like friends from high school you liked but didn’t know well enough to stay in touch with, or friends from college who moved across the country after graduation. The Janitor may fluctuate in his ridiculous omnipotence, and Sarah Chalke may oscillate from mildly neurotic to full-blown twitch-fits, and Zach Braff may grow an icky thin beard, but you still know who they are.
I can acknowledge the show’s faults: it does veer into cartoonishness, and though apparently there is a marked difference between the more realistic tone of earlier seasons (supposedly being recaptured now) and the wildness of later seasons, I can’t say I’ve noticed much of a shift apart from Zach Braff’s insipid narration getting a bit peppier as the series goes on (this seems to happen with most TV narrators; Daniel Stern and Ron Howard both sound more sedated and depressed in the earliest episodes of their narration gigs, too). Then there’s the narration itself, a frat-lite male version of that awful Sex and the City voiceover, trafficking in the most ridiculous generalities this side of a Jack Johnson song; at one point this week, J.D. realized that sometimes, confidence is a good thing. Uh huh.
But watching again over the past few weeks, I’m again impressed by the show’s watchability without full knowledge of the previous seven seasons — and its willingness to leave casual viewers on a note of disappointment (if anything, its moments of melancholy undermining small triumphs threaten to become as much of a formula as other shows’ upbeat pacifying). I’m not sure its mix of goofiness, pathos, and growing up is so far removed from the somewhat more sophisticated but still capable of sitcom corniness How I Met Your Mother (did anyone else think Monday’s episode sounded shtickier than normal? This seems to happen every couple months for me). So many shows demand intense fandom; Scrubs has unself-consciously moved from quietly ahead of the curve to comfortingly old-fashioned.