I hate ER.
Okay, okay… that’s not true. I’ve actually never given it much of a chance, only catching a couple of episodes over the last decade. And just from that small sample, I can clearly see the show’s great acting, engaging characters, and terrific writing (varying by season, true). For all that, though, there’s one inescapable fact I simply can’t get past, no matter how hard I try — it just ain’t funny.
Nor is it supposed to be, obviously; but with a few exceptions, I’m not a big fan of TV shows or movies that don’t have at least some humor in them. I don’t know exactly what that says about me, but the fact remains that I’d rather watch Galaxy Quest fifty times than any Star Trek movie except IV. Likewise, give me Evil Dead 2 over The Texas Chainsaw Massacre any day of the week, and you can trade the Teen Titans in for Young Justice while you’re at it. Not that I don’t like a nice big helping of drama… far from it. But to my mind, surrounding it with lots of humor just makes it all the more potent, like a candle in a dark room or some equally clichéd metaphor.
The long and the short of which is that if you can make a good movie or TV show that’ll have me on the floor laughing one minute and dead somber the next, you’re my new hero… which brings us to Bill Lawrence. Visiting some old college friends who were now doctors and listening to stories about the crazy things that went on during their internships, Lawrence was inspired to create a comedy about young interns learning the ropes of their profession in a hospital environment. Little did he know that he would wind up with the funniest medical show since M*A*S*H and – despite criminal underpromotion by NBC – multiple Emmy nominations to boot. And now, finally, the first season has come to DVD, so let’s slice it open and see what’s inside, shall we?
The show centers around J.D., an insecure, geeky, constantly self-analyzing medical intern with an overactive imagination; many of the show’s best gags involve J.D.’s numerous fantasies (including my personal favorite, a dance fight between the medical and surgical interns straight out of West Side Story.) Joining J.D. are his best friend Turk, friend/love interest Elliot, and Carla, a jaded, veteran nurse; meanwhile, the rogues gallery is rounded out by Chief of Medicine/Spawn of Satan Dr. Kelso, a sadistic Janitor, and J.D.’s abusive, sarcastic, emotionally disturbed yet incredibly sage mentor, Dr. Cox.
In a wise casting decision, Lawrence went with young, largely unknown actors for his group of residents, lending a feeling of authenticity to novices slowly learning the nature of their profession. Zach Braff (J.D.) is terrific, giving just the right air of naïve befuddlement to his POV character. He and Donald Faison (Turk) have great chemistry together, making you truly believe they’ve been best friends all their lives, and Faison conveys smooth self-confidence yet has no problem illustrating Turk’s geekier tendencies either. Meanwhile, Sarah Chalke (former classmate of PoolMan’s wife, for those playing Six Degrees of Mutant Reviewers at home) brings to the table a great handle on Elliot’s formidable collection of neuroses and insecurities, as well as some very impressive… um, acting credentials. Even the show’s frequent guest stars always seem to mesh nicely with the cast, feeling like they’re actually there for some reason other than a quick ratings boost. (Fun fact: since Bill Lawrence used to work on Spin City, most of that show’s cast members have guested on Scrubs over the years.)
And then there’s John McGinley, who merits a full paragraph of his own because, damn, he’s just that good. Best known prior to Scrubs as one of the Bobs from Office Space, McGinley took what could have been an overdone cliché – the grouchy mentor with a heart of gold – and made him one of the most amusing, captivating, psychologically damaged characters on TV. You have to understand, I love John McGinley in the same way Kyle maybe kind of likes Lindsay Lohan a bit; I love him in a way that has my fiancee just slightly concerned. Much credit has to go to the writers, of course, who consistently give McGinley the best rants you’ll find outside of Dennis Miller Live… but they wouldn’t be half as funny if not delivered with the perfect intonation and scathing sarcasm by a man who seems like the word “snark” was literally invented to describe him. These days, the phrase “he was born to play that part” gets tossed around a lot, so much so that it’s lost a lot of its meaning, I think; but please believe me when I say, truthfully, that John McGinley was born to play Dr. Perry Cox. Accept no substitutes.
My personal vote for best episode of the first season is split between My Old Lady and My Bed Banter & Beyond. There were other close contenders, but these two really stand out, albeit each for a different reason. MOL has that spot-on balance of comedy and drama that I love about the show — early on, J.D.’s voiceover informs us that one out of every three patients admitted to the hospital will die there, then we follow he, Elliot, and Turk as each strives not to be the one to lose theirs. The format allows for equal focus on all three, gives us a great understanding of their individual issues, and ultimately shows just how well the actors were grasping their characters so early on. Very funny in places, intensely emotional in others, and making excellent use of background music, MOL illustrates the Scrubs formula perfectly.
As for MBB&B;, well… it’s a clichéd approach, but harkening back to one of my favorite comics of all time (X-Factor #87), I always love it when a psychologist analyzes the main characters of a series, because it’s a great excuse to get inside their heads and see what really makes each of them tick. Set against the backdrop of J.D. and Elliot’s burgeoning relationship, a visiting shrink gets everyone to open up, allowing some surprising truths to come out and facilitating one of my favorite Dr. Cox speeches of all time. Just amazing delivery.
Getting into the technical side of things, while it was a long time coming, we can at least take comfort that the DVD doesn’t skimp on the special features, giving us outtakes, deleted scenes, a one-on-one interview with Zach Braff, a music video for the show’s theme song, and commentary on 6 episodes (during which Lawrence and Braff both have the flu, causing them to cough a lot and repeat information). Also included is a short documentary “Newbies” looking at the genesis of the show, involving interviews with “the real J.D.” (Bill Lawrence’s college friend), several of the show’s writers, and the entire cast… with, in a really nice touch, even supporting characters like Ted, Jordan, and The Todd. The cast members’ thoughts are neat, conveying the sense that the actors genuinely like working together and love what they do. Some of their anecdotes are pretty amusing, too- Zach Braff talks about how Donald Faison (Turk) was mostly known from the movie Clueless before Scrubs, so the two of them would walk down the street and hear, “Hey, Clueless! And… uh, Clueless’s friend.” Also, Bill Lawrence wisely explains that of all the cast members, his wife Christa Miller (Jordan) is the only one who wakes up next to him Sunday morning and tells him whether she feels like working that week. Anyway, overall a really nice DVD presentation… no complaints on this end.
I don’t know; when it all comes down to it, maybe I just have a thing for shows where characters who should have a “the” in their names don’t (Janitor), while those who shouldn’t do (The Todd). But what I do know is this — Scrubs is offbeat, witty, irreverent, blindingly funny, and intensely emotional, often all in the span of a single episode. It features an amazingly talented ensemble of actors with great chemistry, as well as the smartest writing staff on TV these days, bar none. If you haven’t guessed, I love this show and think it’s everything garden-variety sitcoms are not (which is a good thing); but even if you’re not as obsessive as I am, the DVD is still well worth checking out… you never know, it just might make a convert out of you. Apologies for the pun, but grab yourself a needle and give it a shot; it’s worth it.