On John Dorian’s (Zach Braff) first day as a medical intern at Sacred Heart, he goes from wide-eyed, enthusiastic newbie to terrified little deer in about the first hour. He hides in a closet, is seemingly incapable of inserting a needle into anyone’s skin, and spends way more time figuring out who he can latch on to as an anchor than trying to make it on his own (“I can’t do this all on my own,” states the theme song). His search for a mentor first leads him to the kindly old Chief of Medicine, Dr. Bob Kelso (Ken Jenkins)—a grandfatherly presence who makes him feel attended to. He certainly feels no kinship with Dr. Perry Cox (John C. McGinley), the Chief Resident, who hates his interns, his patients, and himself. Just when JD thinks he has the whole thing figured out, has separated Sacred Heart neatly into the good guys and the bad, he confesses to Kelso how scared he is (which, in a lesser sitcom, would be the Big Moment where paternal advice is dispensed), only to have Kelso growl at him, “Son, are you aware that you are nothing but a large pair of scrubs to me?”
If that (the pilot episode) doesn’t sound impressive to you, recall that Scrubs originally premiered sandwiched between Friends and Will & Grace—sitcoms about how wacky! and zany! it was to live an upper-class life in New York. Scrubs, on the other hand, had at its very core the conflict of man vs. God, as the staff of Sacred Heart spent every episode trying to keep their patients the fuck alive. The shadow of death hung over even the silliest of plotlines (see the title of my #2 pick below, for instance), and the message of each episode seemed to be that you can’t cheat death, so the best you can do is help others while you’re here.
Creator Bill Lawrence has said that he’d wanted the series to be a fusion of his three favorite shows: The Simpsons, M*A*S*H, and The Wonder Years (good taste), and you can see the influence of all three in the complicated moral universe that is Sacred Heart Hospital. There are no good guys or bad guys in Scrubs (it’s great that JD learns this on his very first day, and yet still refuses to believe it, positive he has it wrong). The surgeons are asshole jock-types, but not because they’re stupid—it’s because (evidently) that’s actually the way they are (Scrubs has consistently been praised as the most accurate portrayal of a hospital by actual doctors). Cox is a dick, but only because—as we find out—he’s sacrificed his personal life in order to be a dedicated doctor, and resents his job as a result. Even hard-hearted money-grubber Bob Kelso, usually the authoritarian villain in a sitcom like this, is revealed to hate having to make decisions based on what’s fiscally responsible. The commercials when it first premiered understandably made it look like the execs at NBC had lost their minds, since we were told by a voice-over guy that it was “a new comedy on NBC,” over a visual of doctors surrounding a corpse.
Which isn’t to say that the show isn’t funny, because it is. There are genuine moments of human comedy, and even a lot of cartoonish supporting characters (Dr. Beardface, Snoop Dogg Intern, Colonel Doctor). Still, Scrubs’ true achievement was in its portrayal of people battling mortality and losing every time. So below are its five most poignant moments. Get your tissues out.
5. My Catalyst
Dr. Kevin Casey, the visiting physician, has severe OCD, but has managed it by using it to his advantage by reading the same medical texts endlessly. As a result, he’s both a surgical and medical expert, which wows everyone. The girls swoon over him, the guys want to be just like him. That is, until Casey begins showing people up, beating Turk’s record time in the operating room, out-diagnosing Dr. Cox, stealing the female attention away from JD. Casey explains patiently that all you have to do to be as good as him is to spend all of your personal time becoming a better doctor, but Cox and Turk are dogged, the entire episode, by the demands their wives are putting on them. Everyone is furious with Casey by the episode’s end, but when JD goes to confront him, he finds Casey washing his hands in the operating room, two hours after his surgery ended. Casey can’t stop, and he flips out, punching the wall, near to tears, refusing to show his “weak moment” to JD. The camera cuts to Turk going to bed with Carla, and Cox at home playing with his son, only to end back on Casey, endlessly flicking the lights on and off, unable to leave, a prisoner in his own body. And it’s all the more heartbreaking that Casey is played by none other than Michael J Fox, whose Parkinson’s disease has no doubt also made him feel prisoner to his body’s own uncontrollable urges. Unlike a show like Dexter, which tries to sell psychological impairments as a superpower, Scrubs doesn’t let the characters off so easily.
JD began as the timid underling to Dr. Cox’s advice-dispensing mentor, but eventually he began to develop a caretaking style all his own. In this episode, JD tells Cox that it’s important to go the extra mile for your patients—to extend their life expectancy but also to improve the quality of that life by making their stay in the hospital a little easier. Cox rolls his eyes, and when a patient asks if he can help him rehearse for a play, Cox dismisses him outright. The two of them battle over what a doctor’s role is and where the boundaries are with patients, until Cox sees the perfect way to prove JD wrong (as he always does): one of JD’s leukemia patients will be losing her hair, and her family asks JD if he’ll join them in shaving his head to support her. JD, who famously loves his hair, wants to get out of it and Cox encourages him to do so. But eventually, JD realizes that he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he let the girl down, and arrives in her room completely bald as the family applauds. That’s a nice moment, but Scrubs goes one step further by ending with Cox noticing JD’s bald head and, for once, taking his advice: after everyone goes home, he reads lines with his patient, good-naturedly.
3. My Old Lady
“One out of every three patients that’s admitted to this place will die here,” JD says at the beginning of the episode, and since he, Turk, and Elliot are all attending to different patients, we spend the half hour waiting to see which one it will be. However, as the episode wears on, all three grow equally sympathetic. JD’s looking after an old woman with failing kidneys whom he bonds with immediately, and who helps him feel less scared. Turk’s patient is a teenage kid with a hernia who wants nothing more than some company while he watches a football game. And Elliot’s Spanish-speaking patient is an expecting mother who helps her finally bond with Carla. By the time the last five minutes come, you go, “Oh, I get it—so this is one of those days when no one dies.” But actually, instead, all three die, and the interns can’t do anything but learn from their experiences with each one. This was only the fourth episode, and Bill Lawrence has said that NBC encouraged him to make at least one of the patients mean or something, to take the sting out, but he told them that defeated the point. And kudos to him, and to Scrubs, for sticking to their guns. This one set the tone for the rest of the series.
Kelso was always the easy villain from the get-go. As the Chief of Medicine, his job was to make sure that rich patients were given priority, and that anyone without insurance got kicked out. Everyone at the hospital (particularly Dr. Cox) especially resented him because he seemed to take total glee in this position. In this episode, JD is assigned to announce Kelso at an awards ceremony, but can’t think of a single good thing to say. It doesn’t make things easier when Kelso closes down the prenatal unit due to budget cuts. It gets even worse when Dr. Cox tries to put his brain tumor patient in a drug trial, but Kelso gives his spot away to a rich patient with the same brain tumor. Kelso explains that with the money the rich guy will be donating to the hospital, he can re-open the prenatal ward. Cox wonders how Kelso can make a decision like that and just not care, to which Laverne replies, “The second Kelso’s foot hits the bottom of those stairs” when he leaves at night, “he doesn’t have a care in the world.” She’s seemingly right—each time we see Kelso walk down the steps, he walks away whistling. But at the episode’s end, Cox’s patient dies, and as he puts the sheet over the guy’s head, we see Kelso watching in the background, pained and clearly upset. And when he leaves at the end of the day, instead of whistling, he can’t get up the energy to even smile.
1. My Lunch
How no one won a writing Emmy for this episode, I’ll never know. JD continually pesters Cox about going to lunch together for some bonding time, which Cox, unsurprisingly, keeps turning down. Out by himself instead, JD runs into a former patient who he ignores. When she shows up in the hospital later and dies from a drug overdose, JD blames himself, wondering why he didn’t give her some company and alleviate her depression. JD’s loss is Cox’s gain, as they can harvest JD’s patient’s organs to save three of Cox’s ailing patients. Even so, Cox does his best to console JD by agreeing to lunch and telling him, “As soon as you start blaming yourself for deaths that aren’t your fault, there’s no going back.” But when they return to the hospital, they find that JD’s patient actually died from rabies, and all of her organs were infected—and one by one, Cox’s patients die. Cox has a terrifying meltdown and trashes a hospital room (in McGinley’s hands-down best performance), and JD tells him, “Remember: as soon as you start blaming yourself for deaths that aren’t your fault, there’s no going back.” Cox shrugs and says, “You’re right,” and walks out of the hospital. Heart-wrenching.
About Ted McLoof
Ted McLoof is a writer at Rookerville and teaches fiction at the University of Arizona. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Minnesota Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Gertrude, Monkeybicycle, Sonora Review, Hobart, DIAGRAM, The Associative Press, and elsewhere.He's recently been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net Award. He is very cool and very handsome and he'd like to buy you a drink.