“My Jerks” and “My Last Words”
January 6th, 2008
When I heard that Scrubs was given an eighth season, I was frustrated: this is a show that has been proclaimed dead more times than I can count, and was quite actually creatively dead at a certain point in its seventh season. But if I had to give you a single reason why I fail to find much enthusiasm for the ABC premiere of Scrubs, it’s simple: fatigue.
It’s one thing to say that I grew tired, through particularly rough sixth and seventh seasons, of the show’s inconsistency of tone, allowing a pervading wackiness to overwhelm the heart that drove the show forward; that’s pretty understandable, and even partially acknowledged by Bill Lawrence and Co. behind the scenes. But I also found myself growing tired of the course correction: just as the initial problems were becoming too common, the solutions were becoming their own internal cliches, and the show’s structure was beginning to wear thin. I was ready to say goodbye to Scrubs as a show not because of its fixable struggles, but because whatever show it tried to be in spite of those problems wasn’t really holding my attention either.
What “My Jerks” and “My Last Words,” the first two episodes of the series to air on ABC following the show’s off-season move from NBC, represent for me is a test: to what degree can the show, now hyper-aware of fan desire to return to the tone of the first few seasons to the point of a meta-commentary during the credits of the first episode, rely on its old formulas without wearing thin the nostalgia of those watching the show. If you are someone who has always held out hope for Scrubs to get back on track, I can see how this episode could provide substantial hope for the future; similarly, for viewers tuning in after a long hiatus or for the first time, they will stand out as solid comedy episodes which balance slapstick and sentiment like few other shows can.
But as someone who was ready to call Scrubs a dead horse and send it off into the sunset, I’m not sure how long my nostalgia will be able to hold out; I was charmed and entertained by these episodes, but they felt alarmingly rote. They’re enough to get the show out of the television dog house, but are they really enough to reinvigorate the emotional connection some once had with the show?
As if to answer my question, Dr. Cox and J.D. discuss how they’re tired doing the same thing over and over again, a bit of foreshadowing to potentially spin the series off without its major stars but also a shrewd commentary on the show’s paradox: the network might be new and the energy might be higher than it’s been for a long time, but what’s old is all that’s new again.
Of the two segments, “My Jerks” is the one that felt the most like your normal episode of Scrubs: in fact, it was very clearly written as an introduction into the series’ structure. How else could we possibly explain the two almost identical and Scrubs-favourite montages wherein three separate storylines all happen to lead people to ask the same question, face the same pressure, or make an important one-line accusation followed by a dramatic staredown and emotional music? It’s not that these devices don’t work, per se, but they’re an example of the kind of thing that was always present and as a result feels awfully uninteresting; in an age where other comedies are bringing storylines together in organic and often inventive ways, this seems awfully simplistic.
It’s kind of odd to judge these episodes as a season premiere, because they’re really not: there’s no continuation of storylines from a past season, no logical setup for future storylines (which smartly elides the question of J.D. and Elliot’s relationship, which should be avoided at all costs), or anything we normally expect from such an episode. The only real sign we get is the appearance of Courtney Cox, guest-starring as the new Chief of Medicine, Dr. Maddox; she’s charming and Monica-esque in her performance, but it is clear that Lawrence is more focused on introducing the existing characters to a new audience and integrating his new characters into this world.
Compared to last year’s group (including the annoying and unfortunately seen here Squeaky-voiced intern), those new characters (the interns) feel much less like punchlines this time around. They are funny, don’t get me wrong, but their humour is far more nuanced – there is a sense that they could perhaps eventually emerge as characters on their own, and I think it’s smart (even if convenient for Elliot’s storyline here and for Cox and J.D.’s comments later in the episode) to in some way frame them around our main cast and their Intern cast; they are human beings who have quirks that provide jolts of comedy, not quirky shells of human beings.
I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that we start off with an episode that is almost entirely driven by people rediscovering their inner humanity: J.D. and Elliot, in particular, turned into self-centered and inconsiderate people over the past few seasons, so giving them both a chance to hit a sort of rock bottom and reassess their place in life was a smart move that was intelligently not hinged on any one event or major life change. A year ago Scrubs would have been more broad with that kind of event, but it feels like the show is tuning the balance of comedy and drama to allow for those scenes to exist in the same episode as sillier gags.
The episode was sharp comically speaking: I enjoyed Dr. Cox being placed on a Suicide/Homicide watch, Keith’s various interjections were fun and reminded me of how his character kind of got the shaft in the NBC years, and the Janitor (being his firing, which is maybe a budget/scheduling thing?) was in fine form. I’m sure I would have found the Facts of Life nicknames funnier if I knew anything about The Facts of Life, but overall I thought it was a well-balanced half hour.
I am torn on “My Last Words,” because it strikes me as almost too easy: the show has dealt with death and mortality before, and bringing in the amazing Glynn Turman (recent Emmy winner for his work on In Treatment and great as Mayor Royce on The Wire) to play the man certainly gave the storyline the kind of emotional side that the show has failed to tap into in the past. Combine with some decent smaller comic beats for Ted and the interns (Ed’s ability to start new catchphrases, the violent sexual tendencies of Jo), and you have an episode that feels like the Scrubs of yesteryear.
But I think it felt too much like it: there wasn’t actually anything to the episode beyond its very simple structure, and while I don’t want them to go the Grey’s Anatomy route where every patient is a mirror for one of our main characters I felt that this didn’t really do anything for anyone. It isn’t anything that J.D. or Turk have seen before, even if I am very happy to see that their usual immaturity was tempered enough to remain behind and skip Steak night, and I didn’t fell as if George Valentine was ever allowed to be anything but a conduit for your basic questions about the afterlife. Yes, Turmann acted the hell out of it, and I thought that J.D. and Turk handled the entire situation with just the right balance of comedy and drama, but I felt like it was an exercise as opposed to an episode: it was a test to see whether or not the show was still capable of slipping in a sequence wherein J.D. is stuffed after his death while dealing with a serious subject.
The answer was yes, but where did it take us? I think that Scrubs has earned, with these episodes, some time to work out the kinks, but these two episodes felt a little bit blank as a result. While it reminded us what it once was with good execution, it felt like it was entirely devoid of anything approximating new ideas. Don’t get me wrong, I understand this: like Friday Night Lights, I expect that Scrubs in correcting past mistakes will return to previously mined material to provide a basic foundation on which to build to new storylines. It just felt weird seeing two episodes where new storylines were completely absent, so I remain somewhat reserved in my willingness to say that Scrubs has returned, especially considering I would have probably been content if it had left two years ago.
- Enjoyed J.D.’s little meta-rant during the credits sequence, especially the dig at Tony Shahloub; sure, Braff has a lot bigger competition now, but especially in the early years (when Braff was riding a wave of Garden State love to sudden attention for Scrubs), Shahloub stood between him and a legitimate shot at an Emmy he might have deserved…then.
- Stay for the credits with the ABC airings, folks: there was also a blooper, where Braff took the stuffed animal thing a bit too far in an adlib, after the second episode.
- The second episode was largely devoid of supporting characters, which seemed a bit off in many ways: it contributed to it feeling like a bit of a test of sorts, and even the very tenuous Jordan/Maddox storyline that co-existed with the main run was never given anything other than a rote opening and an off-screen resolution hinted at by their departure on like terms.
- J.D. was right: sexin’ up ladies, drinking some brewskis and shooting off flare guns does sound like a lot of fun.
- As a general note, Ted was awesome in both episodes – he’s the show’s not-so-secret weapon.
- For those wondering, Dr. Kelso will be returning for his free Muffins for life, and thus remains a part of the cast – to what extent he’ll be involved in storylines will all depend on when Cox’s guest stint ends, methinks.