Recurring Cast: Zach Braff, Sarah Chalke, Donald Faison, John C. McGinley, Judy Reyes, Ken Jenkins, Neil Flynn
Sitcoms like Orange is the New Black are apparently the future of comedy. In slowing down their situational comedy to a slow-burning crawl, there is no stone unturned when it comes to both potential gags and character drama. The jokes are just as funny as any other comedy out there, but there is a more holistic approach to the nature of the joke-telling. When we look at the success of the show (and my review of the last season proves how powerful I think the narrative and comedy truly is), it is easy to call this the bar that all other comedies should be aiming at: hilarious, thought-provoking, intelligent… However, when we turn back to our past and look at the comedy greats that have fuelled the genre for so long, especially the smash-hit, Scrubs, there is a certain talent to writing a comedy episode that lasts a brief twenty to thirty minutes, yet hits every note it needs to. Scrubs is arguably the brand-leader in this field, especially when it comes to narrative. Shows of a similar length (Friends, How I Met Your Mother, Brooklyn Nine Nine), focus on the gags first and build up a story over time. HIMYM, for instance, often snowballs its bigger and more impressive arcs episode by episode. Friends is perhaps just as slow-burning a character piece as OITNB, in its own right, stealthily giving us six original characters, drip-feeding us characterisation as the series progresses. Scrubs however, pretty much has a fully-functional narrative arc each episode. Almost every instalment has a problem, a build-up and a resolution, bringing out character flaws or strengths time and time again. Scrubs first season is a lesson in why length doesn’t necessarily equal quality.
The set-up? We are thrown into Sacred Hearts, a public hospital in America, where three interns don their scrubs and are thrown into the chaotic world of medicine. Our lead hero is John Dorian, dubbed J.D. Stick-thin, effeminate and prone to day-dreaming whenever the pressure is on (leading to brilliant aside gags, mocking the situation at hand), he is charming and relatable through his imperfections and his desire to overcome them to do the right thing. He is also, at several points in the season, his own worst enemy, impulsive comebacks or inopportune moments of cowardice being the main source of the issues he encounters throughout the season. Alongside him, there are also his two best friends, also interning in Sacred Hearts for their first year in medicine. Donald Faison’s Christopher Turk is J.D’s best friend from high school, a joker and surgeon-in-training. The show uses the differences between doctors and surgeons to create variety in the issues the pair of them face, as well as offering insights into their different characters. Turk’s cockiness is praised as a surgeon, his sure-fire nature a winning trait in his line of work. The other intern is Elliot Reid, a socially inept young woman who suffers crippling bouts of anxiety and self-doubt. Sarah Clarke’s performance here is one of Scrubs’ winning factors, throwing up the female hero for the sitcom. Her character is perhaps not as widely easy to empathise with, but there is an audience who will be able to connect with her low moments. The show’s writing for the character is another strong point worth commending, so viewers will be able to see themselves in Elliot’s bouts of depression, but also realise that it is not her leading character trait. Behind the neurotic tendencies is a skilled doctor and a caring person, who is able to fight through the struggles of the day, but aware that sometimes you can allow yourself to let it get on top of you once in a while. The hospital setting is the perfect hive of chaos to throw these three leading heroes. While a hospital is a building more commonly devoted to melodramatic dramas (see E.R and Grey’s Anatomy), it turns out to work just as well at highlighting comedy. Perhaps it is the fact that jobs that deal with sickness and death so commonly need to find that lighter touch to thrive, but show creator Bill Lawrence finds endless amount of humour lurking in the hospital corridors (the eight following seasons proves that there is no slowing down the jokes for some time yet).
The show sometimes can survive without the hospital setting. As the season hits a midway point, the doctor set-up is more of an excuse to act as a boiling point for each character arc. It makes the characters easier to connect with. Doctor can be replaced for any demanding job and the story still holds up. Each of the leads try to balance their heavy work lives with dating at some point in the season. The three of them try to connect with their parents once settled into their routines. Two friends attempt to start a romantic relationship. The medical stuff is used more to hammer home the stakes. Scrubs is guilty of wandering close to hospital drama cliches from time to time, because, let’s be honest, that material is entertaining. It is hard not to get swept away in the drama when death is ever so close around the corner, especially after a few episodes of the audience taking the hospital setting for granted. Whether the show is talking about the mortality rate of the patients or the outside world, it is the characters that stay with you. Zach Braff is so perfect a leading hero, his comedy timing the stuff most actors dream of one day learning to possess, that his career has subsequently been blighted by trying to step away from this iconic character. John C. McGinley steps up into the fiery role of Dr. Cox, a character so perfectly amusing, you can feel the actor having the time of his life, whenever he gets a chance to tear into a ranting monologue. His character also has the deepest dramatic performance, a wonderfully rich character arc for viewers to track along the course of the season. While Scrubs hasn’t quite hit the extensive supporting character roster future seasons have, meaning that the recurring references can keep the show moving thick and fast constantly, it does very well at this early juncture. We are introduced to the more iconic faces in the show, the chauvinistic yet simple surgeon Todd, the hilariously self-depreciating lawyer, Ted, and, perhaps best of all, the absurdly antagonist janitor, never named, who makes it his sole mission to track down and torment J.D. They are all simple jokes, but it gives Scrubs an easy-going nature, making it easier to binge-watch than most other comedies (yes, including Orange is the New Black). Start a season of Scrubs and the whole thing will be over in a day or two if you give into indulgences easily.
Final Verdict: Scrubs has both the comedic weight and the emotional gravitas to be a sure-fire win, a complete success when it comes to sitcoms.