December 1st, 2009
“Everything’s new, except for the title.”
When Scrubs returned for an eighth season on ABC last year, I was a naysayer.
In my eyes, the show had worn out its welcome with a number of problematic seasons that became problematically silly in a way that ruined the heart that made the show so compelling in earlier seasons. I got to the point where I felt the show did not even deserve the chance for closure: no matter what I once felt for these characters, I had no desire to see them continue on thier problematic path.
And then season eight happened, and my point of view changed. The show literally went back to basics, rewinding back into the earlier seasons and starting to tell stories about our beloved characters maturing and a new crop of interns learning the ropes and in need of mentors. The show was breaking no new ground, relying on the same combination of cutaway humour/blind sentimentalism that defined seasons one and two, but it grounded the show to a sense of identity that reminded me what I missed during the dark years. So when it had its beautifully executed finale, season eight proved itself to be the perfect endnote on these characters’ journey.
And then ABC renewed the show. And all over again, it felt like everything was wrong: this was a show that had a chance to leave on a high note after most of us had written it off, and now it’s risking everything to return. And so we had another summer/fall of Bill Lawrence assuring us that the show would be different, this time a distinct enough entity from the Scrubs we knew (he wanted to call it Scrubs Med) to justify returning even after J.D.’s emotional departure.
Watching the ninth season premiere, I’ve realized that the problem is less that this is inherently bad (in fact, it’s quite good) and more that this is absolutely exactly what happened last season. The show presents a new set of med students looking for mentors, and keeps the older doctors around to serve as those mentors, resulting in a show that isn’t actually that different from what they did a year ago.
Which makes it solidly engaging, if not nearly the sort of reboot that it might have been a year ago.
The one thing about this new version of Scrubs is that it is substantially more future proof: if, for some reason, the show emerges as a comic hit this season, there is actually a show here that could logically continue. The same couldn’t be said last season, which felt more substantially like an ending. However, the seasons basically follow the same principle in the early going, as many of the big changes (like Zach Braff’s inevitable departure) have been delayed in order to help viewers transition into the new structure. However, none of them are actually given storylines: outside of the bromance between Turk and J.D., and Dr. Cox’s relationship with J.D., the show is treating its long-term characters as tools to help shape the journeys of its new characters.
This is inherently smart, but it actually sort of handicaps the season early on because the new characters aren’t well-developed enough to really carry these types of storylines. Lucy is officially the new J.D. in terms of the alternate narrative perspective (sharing with J.D., hence the “Our” in the title), but she is simultaneously too similar (with the same kind of elaborate dream sequences) and too different (in terms of having no history for us to really relate to). Last season, while they had new interns like Denise, they largely used them as teaching tools for the older doctors, so the show hasn’t yet gotten used to having other characters become the new J.D., Turk, Elliot, etc. The result is that Lucy speaks and acts like J.D. in a way that works with the rhythm of the show but does very little to establish her own sense of identity.
If you go back to the show’s pilot (which is actually where I’m headed after I finish this review), it’s true that J.D. wasn’t yet a fully formed character, so to expect the same here is perhaps unfair. However, the problem is that the show has in some ways fully formed a character for her in that she is the new J.D. And while those traits developed organically in Braff’s performance (before overpowering it entirely), they’ve been transplanted onto Lucy in a way that Kerry Bishé can’t really give any nuance while having to share screentime with the returning characters and their quirks. The show runs her through the paces, teaching her a lesson about addicts and the futility of trying to fix their problems (a lesson that nearly every character in the show’s history has learned at some point), and it isn’t unentertaining so much as it is less effective than it was in the past.
The other character to get some substantial development here is the one younger holdover from last season, as Eliza Coupe is back as the acerbic Denise. The show is smart in how it folds her into the series, pairing her off with the age-appropriate med school dropout Drew and turning her into the unattainable superior for the cocky and entitled Cole. And whereas Lucy hooking up with Cole feels pointless and rushed, never connecting with any sense of character, Denise is the perfect foil to these new characters in that we more carefully understand her point of view, and because she is in a unique position as an intermediary between Cox/J.D.
Now, I do think that they moved a bit too quickly in terms of humanizing the character, as Denise from last season was mean and emotionless to the point where her sudden shift to the sentimental here (as she realizes after a single conversation with J.D. and Turk that she doesn’t, in fact, want to be alone forever on her island with her turtles). However, I think that it was the one shift that felt like it wasn’t inherently reductive of previous seasons. Drew’s med school burnout story (and his position as Dr. Cox’s #1) is similarly unique, and while his relationship with Denise is very simple it feels like something that could grow and develop in a different way than the relationships which came before it (Elliot/J.D., Turk/Carla, etc.). While Denise’s character has been softened, I don’t think it’s a problematic softening in the long run.
And as for Dave Franco’s Cole, I think it’s an example of my appreciation for the performer outweighing the limited capacity of the character. In context, he’s barely more developed than the hot Australian doctor (who is little else than that, really), playing a delightfully douchey and entitled student, which is not actually in itself that unique. After all, early in the series, the show did a similar storyline with a trustee’s son tormenting Elliot when he’s assigned to her care. What makes it work for me, though, is that Franco has most often been playing either stoners or geeks who talk like stoners (most recently on The CW’s Privileged), and it’s kind of great to see him play someone with a more brash personality. While Lucy is the new J.D., and Drew has his own quirks (like this use of “whore” in stressful situations), Cole is the character who feels the most like a caricature (shortens words, has a wingmom) but yet Franco’s performance helped elevate to something that grew on me as the episodes went on.
And yet, in the two episodes, I’m not sure the show really did enough with any of this to convince me that it’s all going to work out if I wasn’t a returning viewer who understood the show’s patterns. It’s a weird position to be in, as for me the show is problematically familiar and for new viewers the show is likely problematically unfamiliar in terms of the leaps and shortcuts it makes to try to replace an outgoing cast with an incoming one. When the show went back to basics last year, it was repetitive in a way that felt like the show coming full circle: now, the show is trying to use the same tricks to start something entirely new, and in the process leaning on old material (and old characters, like the superfluous Dr. Kelso) in a way that is actually slowing down any sort of progress.
Neither of the two episodes were bad, and in fact I’d say that “Our First Day of School” probably did as good a job as it possibly could trying to explain away the show’s new premise (old hospital torn down, new hospital built on university campus, Elliot is seven months pregnant, etc.) and introduce these new characters. “Our Drunk Friend” had less of a narratological burden which meant that its problems were somewhat more apparent, but overall the episodes tread closely to Scrubs’ ongoing tradition and represented nothing close to a departure for Bill Lawrence and company.
As such, my true verdict on the new Scrubs waits until the departures actually happen, and when most of the returning characters outside of Turk and Dr. Cox leave and allow the show to get on with its new existence. The transition period exists for a number of reasons, many of them relating to promotion (Braff’s cache is way down, but still exists), but at this point it’s keeping the show from defining itself as anything but the exact same show with the exact same storylines but with new characters who are forced to fight over screen time with characters we love but who no longer have any sort of narrative arc. And while that’s charming, and on occasion very funny, it’s not a sustainable television model and, perhaps more problematically, it’s the same thing the show did last year just with different characters at the forefront. If this was Season 8, I’d view it as a fresh new start: as Season 9, it’s a weird transition phase that could go in any number of directions.
- I think the one lingering question for me is what happened to Carla: Judy Reyes is one of the missing actors who didn’t get another job (Neil Flynn, the Janitor, is of course on ABC’s The Middle), and yet she hasn’t been confirmed to be stopping by that often. This is largely because the show doesn’t seem to have any major storyline plans for Turk and Dr. Cox (Christa Miller is over on her husband’s other show, after all), but it’s interesting we didn’t get a mention of it.
- While the ratings aren’t of huge importance for the show, as in many ways it was brought onto the schedule in order to kill time between Dancing with the Stars seasons, I really hope the show maintains some momentum so that it can help launch Better Off Ted: that’s a show that deserves a few more seasons, and if a zombified Scrubs can make that happen I’ll be most pleased.
- While J.D.’s antics were tiresome throughout the two episodes (and remain the show’s lowpoint), I thought Dr. Cox worked well in a largely supporting role and as a teacher: we know from experience that he’s a great teacher when he wants to be, and it’s great to have John C. McGinley remain on my television.