“My Saving Grace” and “My Happy Place”
January 13th, 2009
If there is a single element of Scrubs which provides the most frustration for me, it is the series’ insistence on pushing together J.D. and Elliot.
I place emphasis on the “pushing together” as opposed to the pairing itself; it is not that I do not think that Braff and Chalke have chemistry, or that these characters shouldn’t find something approaching romantic happiness by the end of this season, but rather that the show has suffered in the past when the show pushed them together as if fate was responsible for it. These two were once, perhaps, an on-again/off-again pairing that kept our attention with its back and forth: but like so many couples before them (See: Luke and Lorelai, Ross and Rachel), the back and forth evolved into a portentous roadmap riddled with potholes, detours and roadblocks that, for some reason, never inspired these characters to turn the car around and go back to Winnipeg.
So I should take “My Happy Place,” the second half of this week’s double header as we frontload the eighteen episodes that make up the show’s eighth season, as almost a slap in the face, an affront to my past complaints in that it has every intention of raising this issue yet again. The seventh season “finale” was the last time the show delved into this territory, and as soon as it was clear their intentions a red flag certainly went off.
However, to my surprise I found myself accepting the show’s own version of fate: no longer tempestuous and driven by lust, jealousy or some long, drawnout principle of love, what we find in both of these episodes is a continued mandate of simplicity: by not trying to tell stories bigger than the show can handle, even the pairing I feared most of all feels, dare I say, organic.
The thing that links both “My Saving Grace” and “My Happy Place” is two conversations, which appear to take place in a condensed period of time even when the events in the rest of the episode feel like they would take considerably longer to achieve. I think that this works: the show’s temporality isn’t really one of its defining characteristics unless it is a specific plot device (like Dr. Cox trying to keep his perfect record). They also ground the episodes in something very concrete: even with a few one-joke characters floating around, there is an emotional consistency (if not an original emotion) that drives the episodes forward.
In “My Saving Grace,” it’s the conversation that Carla has with Katie, the young intern who is basically acting like the Pilot’s Elliot, a character who is almost entirely unlikeable and whose personal issues have driven them to become highly competitive but not particularly competent. The conversation doesn’t tread any new territory, but I think that it demonstrated the right use for Judy Reyes: after some attempts in the past few seasons to present her as either emotionally unstable or low in self esteem, it was smart to return the Lioness that we fell in love with to begin with. The show has begun to excise the personal lives of our characters, and returning to their work relationships is really bringing out the best in some characters: Carla here was looking out for her, ensuring that she wouldn’t make the mistake to think that her experience is different from everyone else’s.
Yes, I don’t necessarily think that the show needs to be quite so obvious in drawing parallels between the new interns and our main cast, or that the show needed to so obviously juxtapose Katie’s struggles with Dr. Maddox (Courtney Cox, literally disappearing at episode’s end) and her tyrannical behaviour. But the episode did a good job of demonstrating that, while there is a sort of victory in Carla getting through to the intern or in getting rid of Maddox, there is also the bittersweet reality of Maddox’s life being upended, and that more work needs to be done to ensure that Elliot’s intern doesn’t continue down this path. The show is less celebratory now, a very important step in achieving the balance between comedy and drama that it was once known for.
Speaking of which, I thought this was a better balance of comedy and drama than the second episode last week: yes, it was less touching, but the drama here (Dr. Cox having to tell Kelso that he missed him, J.D. and Elliott being able to help the MS patient with no insurance) was more understated and I thought there was still plenty of humorous moments. I was especially fond of Neil Flynn, who got to let loose as the plainclothed Janitor: anyone who wasn’t laughing at his elaborate plan to get rid of Maddox by opening a chain of Photo Shops is just not watching the right show.
I think that “My Happy Place” topped it, though – yes, I thought that Turk and Dr. Cox’s storyline crossed the line between nostalgia and repetition, but the handling of J.D. and Elliot’s reconciliation was just a lot more impressive than I expected it to be. It was clear where the show was going: they were dating without the sex, coincidentally the exact opposite of Ted and Robin’s storyline on this week’s episode of How I Met Your Mother. That was one thing: they had some cute moments, the Oprah obsession wasn’t too overplayed, and I like these two actors together. But when Kelso confronted them about being in a relationship, they did something really intriguing: the show actually stopped time, and we were left with J.D. and Elliot in a black room lit only by spotlights.
The conversation that followed, stopped in time as the rest of the episode moved around it, was stark and honest: they admitted they still had feelings, that they still look at each other in that way, but that some part of them feels their past is too great for them to get together. This is all true, and they continued to look at it through this very realistic lens: is their past a sign that they’re not meant to be together, or rather a series of warnings that, if remember as opposed to ignored, could provide them the groundwork to start a real relationship?
It shouldn’t have worked: we should have balked as soon as they started talking about how they’d had their hearts broken, or how they were worried about what people would think, or how they each had their own preconceptions that would complicate things. But these moments were broken by little comic beats: each character getting a chance to laugh off the other’s quibbles, J.D. being given a chance to list off some Friends cliches, or even just moments of silence (silence!). The show didn’t have those these past seasons, and the result was a scene like this feeling like those cliches, or worse feeling like a shadow of its former self.
The episode surrounding it was also pretty funny: we got the return of The Todd, the great awareness of J.D.’s necessity for fantasy being used against him to take him out of the conversation with Elliot and Kelso long enough to catch the Sasquatch win his ping pong match, the return of the Janitor to his old stomping grounds, and some one-note but charming enough appearanced for Jimmy the overly feely orderly and our good friend Ted. Combine with Kelso’s own personal sense of discovery, and you have an episode that I think builds character without feeling like the “extra special episodes” of the past.
Which is why I didn’t mind when J.D. and Elliot walked out of that hospital, held hands, and had that quiet moment: not only did they ease us into the relationship by showing us that they were more or less together anyways, but they also didn’t end things with a sappy kiss, or a big emotional outpouring of emotions and feelings. Instead, we got what these characters should have: a mature, grownup relationship based on years of friendship and caring for one another; and while last season’s J.D. would have felt unrealistic in this scenario, Braff and the writing staff have dialed him back to the point where I bought them. Unless the show decides to screw with them even more (Please, for the love of all things good, don’t), I feel as if we have seen the end of this drama, and I am content with that: they either had to put it to bed or put them to bed, and the fact they did the latter without falling into any dangerous cliches demonstrates a more confident, assured show.
And one that I can honestly say I’m looking forward to again.
- J.D.’s cereal box gag was entertaining enough, but all it did was remind me of “My name is Judge!” magazine foldouts in the end.
- I had totally missed this (thanks, NeoGAF!), but Maddox’s “That’s a really stupid name” to Dr. Cox was, you know, a play on Courtney Cox’s name. I felt really dumb when I read that. But on that note, I thought Cox was good in her final episode: charming while clearly evil, even if I thought the episode could have dealt a bit more on her personal side.
- There’s a few more absenses for the show: Carla sits out her second episode in “My Happy Place,” while Turk is absent for “My Saving Grace.” Rumour has them all having to miss an episode or two, so here is hoping that they mix them around. I actually thought the character balance was pretty good in this set.