Buena Vista // 2002 // 558 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees (Retired) // July 13th, 2005
"I just wanted to do a broad, silly comedy but at the same time hopefully have some stories that had some depth and emotion at the end." -- Series creator and producer Bill Lawrence
Scrubs is the kind of TV show that's difficult to describe to those who haven't seen it. If you can imagine a medical dramedy that partakes as much of Parker Lewis Can't Lose and The Wonder Years as E.R., you're partway there. Series creator Bill Lawrence set out to create a series that was more honest about the realities of being a medical intern than any of the myriad other medical TV shows on the air, past and present, and what he came up with was a weird but irresistible mixture of hyperrealism, sentiment, realistic drama, and downright goofiness. You'll either love Scrubs or you'll be completely impervious to its charm -- and the fact that the series has just been renewed for a fifth season shows that lots of people belong to the former camp. The bountifully supplemented release of Season One on DVD offers more reasons than ever to fall in love with this quirky, unique series.
For medical interns like John "J.D." Dorian (Zach Braff, Garden State), being a new doctor can be pretty terrifying. His best friend, Chris Turk (Donald Faison, Clueless), is adjusting well to being one of the surgical staff, the jocks of the hospital; Turk even snags a girlfriend almost immediately, the smart, slightly jaded nurse Carla Espinosa (Judy Reyes). For J.D., settling in takes a bit longer. Even the janitor (Neil Flynn) seems to be persecuting him. At first he thinks he's going to find solace in a romance with the ambitious, insecure intern Elliot Reid (Sarah Chalke, Roseanne), but he ends up settling for friendship, which has its own rewards...and drawbacks.
J.D.'s need for a mentor to guide him through this rough time leads him at first to the seemingly kindly Dr. Bob Kelso (Ken Jenkins, The Sum of All Fears), who assures all the newbies that "we're family here." Soon enough, however, he finds out that Dr. Kelso cares only about the financial bottom line. It's abrasive Dr. Perry Cox (John C. McGinley, Office Space) who really cares about the patients, despite his hectoring, downright abusive manner toward interns. He's always ready to take J.D. down a peg when he starts to get full of himself, but he's also there to give him a much-needed jolt of confidence (or a reality check) when he's at his lowest. By the end of their first year at Sacred Heart, J.D., Turk, and Elliot are feeling pretty good about themselves -- until Dr. Cox's snarky ex-wife, Jordan Sullivan (Christa Miller, The Drew Carey Show), lays all their secrets out on the table and ends the season on a cliffhanger.
When summing up the reasons Scrubs is so great it's a toss-up as to whether the writing or the acting is the place to start. I'll toss that mental coin and begin with the cast. The ensemble here is so skilled, and they work so well together, that it's hard to imagine the show working without their particular chemistry. Zach Braff is the lynchpin, and if we didn't care about his ingenuous J.D. -- whose voiceover narration and fantasy sequences take us even deeper into his perspective -- we probably wouldn't care about the show as a whole. J.D. is an engaging combination of idealistic young professional and imaginative kid (the characters that populate his recurrent fantasy sequences include the Star Wars cast, Jimmy Walker, and the dancing street gangs of West Side Story). It's easy to see why Scrubs launched Braff into stardom; his winning performance as J.D. makes him probably the character we empathize most with, although his best female friend (and sometime lover) Elliot is right up there with him, at least for this female viewer. Sarah Chalke is absolutely fearless, creating a character who's lovable not in spite of but because of the neuroses that drive her: the ambition, the nervous tics, the insecurity, the tendency to always somehow find the single worst thing to say to any given person. Elliot (and here I'm venturing into the writing as well as the acting) is one of the most rounded comic female characters on TV at the moment, and Sarah Chalke is her perfect embodiment.
On the other end of the scale is Turk, confident to the point of arrogance, yet subject to fits of insecurity as are all interns, and finding his way through the labyrinthine tangle of his first serious romantic relationship. Donald Faison is almost revoltingly talented; in addition to nailing the comic-dramatic tone of his character, he can sing and dance and even (as one particularly memorable fantasy sequence shows) save souls revival-style with the best of 'em. It's great to see Faison in a role that capitalizes on the cocky charm he showed in Clueless. Countering the optimistic (and naïve) youthfulness of the interns are the experienced, often condescending older doctors: John C. McGinley and Ken Jenkins. Although J.D., with his desire to reduce everything into the easily digestible terms of a '50s sitcom, comes to identify Dr. Cox and Dr. Kelso as the good father and bad father, respectively, both are more complex and unpredictable than the categories to which J.D. tries to reduce them -- especially John C. McGinley's Dr. Cox.
McGinley, in fact, deserves a paragraph to himself. Abrasive, insulting (he persists in calling J.D. by girls' names), and tireless in finding new ways to cut the interns down to size, he is nevertheless the conscience of the hospital -- the doctor who seems at first to be all cynicism but who, we come to recognize, cares about his patients far more than the falsely paternal, beaming Dr. Kelso. Dr. Cox has plenty of issues of his own: his lingering emotional ties to his ex-wife, his social isolation, his hidden fear of getting too close to death and loss. At times he's almost unbearably tough on J.D. But more than anyone else he teaches J.D. about the reality of being a doctor: the sacrifices, the responsibilities, the emotional shortcuts that make your job possible (but that may also cut you off from your fellow humans). He's also simply the most quotable character on the show -- all the more remarkable when, as we learn from the bonus materials, McGinley improvises so much of his dialogue (but more on that later). To give you a taste for his searing style, here's one of his many, many irresistible rants -- in this case, to a young woman patient who's getting on his nerves:
Dr. Cox: Okay, think of what little patience I have as, oh, I don't know, your virginity. You always thought it would be there, until that night junior year when you were feeling a little down about yourself and your pal Kevin, who just wanted to be friends, well, he dropped by and he brought a copy of About Last Night and a four-pack of Bartles & Jaymes and woo hoo hoo, it was gone forever -- just like my patience is now.
Man, I wish I could get away with talking to people like that.
Recurring characters such as the equally scathing Jordan Sullivan, sex-crazed surgical jock Todd (Robert Maschio), and the harried lawyer Ted (Sam Lloyd) help round out the colorful ensemble. Season One also features some strong guest appearances. Brendan Fraser (The Mummy) is excellent in a moving two-part episode in which he plays Dr. Cox's brother-in-law, whose admission into the hospital as a patient causes Cox to confront some of his fears. Sean Hayes of Will and Grace is memorable as a "golden boy" intern who outshines J.D. at everything. And John Ritter even appears as J.D.'s father. At the same time, the guest appearances don't take over the season; stunt cameos, like the appearance of four actors from the medical drama St. Elsewhere, are at a minimum.
Moving on to the writing, one of the striking details about Scrubs is its handling of race issues. It's easy to look at the DVD cover and see a typical sitcom lineup: white hero, white heroine, black buddy, Latina gal pal. But there's no tokenism here; the roles of Turk and Carla are written so that they aren't just white people played by ethnic actors, nor are they ethnic stereotypes. In an interview on National Public Radio, Bill Lawrence said he was tired of sitcoms in which the black characters seemed not to know that they were black. He and his real-life black friends, he said, could talk about race together, and he wanted to reflect that in the show. So we get refreshing dialogue like this:
J.D.: You know I'm totally down with the rap music?
Turk: Dude, be whiter.
J.D.: Here's the thing. Tupac, DMX, Dr. Dre, in most of their songs these artists use an extremely volatile racial slur. Lowers his voice: The N word.
Turk: I got it.
J.D.: Right. My question is this. If we're both singing along, and knowing that otherwise I would never use the word, am I allowed to say --
J.D.: See, that's good for me to know. I didn't know that.
One of the triumphs of the show is that J.D. and Turk are so convincing as best friends that we believe they can talk in a commonsense manner about this most sensitive of topics. It even becomes a primary plot point in the episode "My Fifteen Minutes," in which Turk is outraged by the hospital's new advertising campaign, which exploits his blackness for the sake of an image of hipness and diversity. Likewise, Carla as written is highly aware of being Latina, and she bristles appropriately when Elliot makes privileged assumptions about her upbringing, but she is never just a stereotype. In one great scene, when J.D. tries to pull attitude on her, she reduces him to pulp by telling him, "Sweetie, you have to be a minority sidekick in a bad movie to pull that off" and putting on a perfect Rosie Perez imitation of the stereotypical Latina character.
Sometimes the writing does stumble in its constant boomeranging between sentiment and comedy, fantasy sequences and realistic drama. J.D.'s voiceovers sometimes seem to be parodies of themselves in their earnest "this is what I've learned" tone. Sometimes, in fact, they are parodies, but more often they are in earnest. Getting adjusted to the wild swoops between tones is part of what makes Scrubs an acquired taste; yet it's definitely a taste worth acquiring. Also a bit disorienting at first is the speed at which each episode unfolds. Bill Lawrence notes in the featurettes that in Season One he tried to give each episode three plots plus a running janitor joke, and the consequence is that most episodes unfurl with almost dizzying speed. I find that this makes the comedy work all the better, but sometimes it works against the more serious, dramatic developments, since they can seem to come out of nowhere. At the same time, it's a relief not to have each episode slowed down by a laugh track; the one-camera format works well here to keep the pace brisk, and episodes never feel stretched or padded.
Even if the series itself seems to be having a few growing pains in this first season, the packaging Season One has been given could hardly be more impressive. The three discs are housed in a fold-out case that's designed to emulate the doctors' metal clipboards, even down to a transparent X-ray adorning the front. In addition, an insert that contains the episode listings for the season is designed like a file folder and slips into the interior of the "clipboard." This is the kind of clever conceit that makes my geeky heart leap with joy. Audiovisual quality is respectable, with a clear fullscreen transfer (preserving the original aspect ratio) and punchy stereo track that makes the most of the pop soundtrack and whimsical sound effects. Bill Lawrence can wince all he likes in his commentaries over the whooshing SFX that accompany whip pans -- I find them an enjoyable enhancement to the fantastical humor of the show.
As for the extras -- mamma mia, what extras! This is the most bounteous set of supplemental material I've seen on a TV show release since...well...maybe ever. Each disc contains an array of extras and commentaries, and at most retailers you'll also get a bonus fourth disc with still more extra content. This is a treasure trove of behind-the-scenes goodness. Disc One gives us three audio commentaries as well as the half-hour featurette "Newbies," which is playable in one fell swoop or in its component parts, and covers the origin of the show, the writing staff, and the individual characters and actors. This is a great overview of the beginnings of the show, and it introduces us to the real-life inspiration for J.D., Jon Doris, who appears with his wife to discuss how his experiences as a medical intern influenced the writing of the first season. The cast members talk about how they ended up on the show and discuss the major facets of their characters. It's a fun behind-the-scenes overview.
The presence of nine minutes of alternate line readings just goes to reinforce what the featurettes have already indicated: that many of the cast are skilled at improvisation and come up with their own lines. The bonus footage lets us see McGinley, Braff, and Flynn coming up with off-the-cuff dialogue that is often as funny as what was kept in the show. Similarly, the fun outtakes reel (4:00) shows us more of the actors in improvised moments. (My favorite outtake features Zach Braff providing cheesy America's Funniest Home Videos narration for Sarah Chalke's fit of the giggles.) "The Doctor Is In" is a five-minute one-on-one session with Braff, who talks in more detail about his experience of coming to the show. We get more than ten minutes of deleted or extended scenes, which include some excised fantasy sequences -- always fun. "Not Just Another Medical Show" (6:15) allows Lawrence, the crew, and the cast to talk more about the series' drive for realism, which led them to film at a real (but defunct) hospital. "Favorite Moments" (8:30) features both cast and crew members talking about moments from Season One that they found most memorable; this is just about the only extra that I found unnecessary, not counting the music video for "Superman," the song that plays over the opening credits.
Audio commentaries are present for six episodes: "My First Day" (the pilot), "My Old Lady" (a particularly strong episode, and winner of a Humanitas award), "My Fifteen Minutes," "My Blind Date," "My Sacrificial Clam," and "My Hero." The commentaries all feature Lawrence, usually accompanied by a different cast member or two -- Braff, McGinley, Flynn, Maschio, and/or Lloyd. These tend to be rather laid-back (in one, Lawrence and Braff are both suffering from the flu) but at their best offer some enjoyable tidbits about the show, including some references to themes that would be picked up in future seasons. It's a pleasure to have so many different actors contributing to different commentaries; it gives each a distinct flavor.
Finally, if you purchase the set through Best Buy, you'll get a bonus disc that contains almost 16 minutes' worth of additional goodies: more deleted scenes, outtakes, and alternate line readings; improvisation; and the aptly named "Sarah Keeps Talking." (She really does talk as fast as Elliot in real life.)
As much as this show got bounced around on the schedule during its first broadcast season, it's a pleasure to get to catch up on all the episodes I missed and watch the story arcs unfold as they were meant to. The packaging of this set is stellar, but the main reason to purchase it is the series itself, an invigoratingly fresh take on the sitcom format and medical shows in general.
Ted the lawyer has won his case, but he really should see someone about that flop sweat problem. Not guilty!
Review content copyright © 2005 Amanda DeWees; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Buena Vista
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 558 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentaries on Six Episodes
* "Newbies" Featurette
* "The Doctor Is In"
* "Superman" Music Video
* Alternate Lines
* "Not Just Another Medical Show" Featurette
* Favorite Moments
* Deleted Scenes
* TV.com Season One Episode Guide