Friday, March 16, 2007

Long Live "Scrubs"

Nothing ever changes. The "Artist Formerly Known As Prince" is still just "Prince," my ex-wife is still pretty much my wife, "Grey's Anatomy" always wraps up every episode with some cheesy voice-over that ties up all of the story lines, which, incidentally, is my least favorite story device on television ...
- The beginning of a rant by Dr. Cox (John C. McGinley) on the "My Scrubs" episode of "Scrubs" that aired last night (March 15)

Jump the Shark is a website that asks fans to weigh in on the exact moment that a television show reached its peak and started heading downhill. It is cleverly named after the episode of "Happy Days" in which the Fonz, on a trip to Los Angeles, successfully, yes, jumps over a shark on water skis.

The success of the site and the insertion of the phrase "jumped the shark" into the cultural vocabulary for shows on the back nine of their runs demonstrate the widespread belief in the basic idea that, at some point, shows stop being good. Or, at least, they stop being as good or as interesting as they were.

I pretty much agree with this assumption. The life graph of every show is not the same. Some start at a high peak and drop quickly and severely. I'm thinking of "Will & Grace," which was a sharply-written, funny show about two close friends who were roommates, before the four lead characters turned shrill, ridiculously broad and generally unlikable. Other shows start slower, take some time to build, hit a real peak, and then drop off from there. "Friends" fits this model, taking some time to find the right tones for each of the characters, peaking, and then falling off as the characters became more defined by their idiosyncrasies. Still others ping-pong up and down, with some seasons that are stronger than others. As much as I adore "Frasier," it fits into this category.

Of all the shows on my TiVo season pass list, there is only one that has been on the air for a long time and has not only not jumped the shark, but has been remarkably consistent in its tone and quality-level throughout its run: "Scrubs."

There is a good chance many of you have not seen "Scrubs." How do I know? First of all, it has never garnered very high ratings, flying under the radar and yet somehow getting picked up for another season each year. It is the kind of show you have probably heard is good, but have never actually seen for yourself. Nobody knows this story better than I do. After all, I never even saw the show until midway through its fourth season, even though, from the beginning, multiple people told me how well-done it was. Once I finally watched an episode, and got hooked, I went back and watched the first three-and-a-half seasons on DVD, while catching the new installments as they aired.

Since I crammed five-and-a-half years of "Scrubs" into a less than two-year period, and since the show entered syndication this year and is challenging the "Law & Order" franchise for the title of the most omnipresent show on television, I have had the opportunity to be able to compare different seasons of the show on a virtually side-by-side basis. Several things amazed me.

First, the cast has stayed completely intact. Not a single regular has left. "Scrubs" is the U2 of the sitcom world. The characters have developed in the way that people would develop over six years. The doctors have gone from interns to residents to attending physicians, Dr. Christopher Turk and nurse Carla Espinosa have gone from dating to engaged to married to married with a baby, and the janitor (he has no name, he is just "Janitor," which is fine since he doesn't know almost anyone else's name, for example calling Turk, "Bald Black Doctor") has gone from a mean tormentor of the lead character, Dr. John "J.D." Dorian, to ... okay, not much has changed there. But, at least now he interacts with all of the characters, not just J.D.

Second, the characters have stayed true to themselves. They have developed as people in a realistic way, but there have been no massive character swings (like Karen's evolving shriek on "Will & Grace"). J.D. still daydreams, but he is less naive than he was. Dr. Elliot Reid, J.D.'s on-again, off-again (off now for several seasons) crush, still has self-esteem issues, but she's hardly the basket case that started the internship program. Their development seemed logical for people in their situations.

In what is a very tricky maneuver, the show has been able to integrate "name" guest stars, who have stopped by for one episode, multi-installment arcs, or hit-and-miss appearances throughout the years, without it ever feeling like it was a gimmick. I hate to pick on "Will & Grace," because I liked the show, but more often than not their guest spots reeked of stunt casting.

Matthew Perry was nowhere near Chandler-land as a son living in his father's shadow who had to decide whether or not to donate a kidney to him. Colin Farrell was surprisingly funny playing an Irish guy who charmed the hospital staff while holding vigil at the bedside of a guy he knocked out in a bar. Heather Graham, Tara Reid, Mandy Moore, Amy Smart and Elizabeth Banks have done time as love interests for J.D., while Heather Locklear spent several episodes as the girlfriend of Dr. Perry Cox, J.D.'s cranky, reluctant mentor (before Cox got back together with his ex-wife, the tough-as-nails plastic-surgery junkie, Jordan). Brendan Fraser stopped by twice as Jordan's brother, a quirky, doomed leukemia patient; Michael J. Fox took up residency (I know it's a lame pun, but I'm running out of synonyms for "did some episodes") as a physician suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder; Tom Cavanagh pops in nearly every season as J.D.'s ne'er-do-well brother; Sean Hayes played against type as an overly optimistic intern; Dave Foley killed as a snooty grief counselor; Freddy Rodriguez (from "Six Feet Under") had a blast as Carla's jealous brother who despised Turk; Nicole Sullivan went from annoying to tragic in several episodes as a neurotic patient with a hapless love life; and John Ritter played J.D.'s father, with the actor's tragic death touchingly written into the show. Scott Foley, Rick Schroder and Josh Randall all spent significant time as Elliott's love interests.

Oh, and since series creator Bill Lawrence was a writer on "Spin City," nearly every major member of that cast (Fox, Locklear, Alan Ruck, Richard Kind, Barry Bostwick, Michael Boatman and Alexander Chaplin) has appeared on "Scrubs." Plus, the writers have paid tribute to doctors from classic television shows, casting Bernie Koppell ("The Love Boat") and William Daniels, Stephen Furst and Eric Laneuville ("St. Elsewhere," only Laneuville played an orderly on that show) as physician-patients.

Then there are the classic television icons that have played themselves, including Jimmie "J.J." Walker, Billy Dee Williams, Fred "Rerun" Berry, Chuck Woolery, George "Mr. Sulu" Takei and Maureen "Marcia Brady" McCormick.

I know it's a long list. That's why I laid it out. Because while the list of name guests is overwhelming, the performances never were. Everyone fit seamlessly into the wacky world of Sacred Heart Hospital.

The writers have been able to pull off something that even a classic sitcom like "Cheers" could not: Navigating the will-they-or-won't-they conundrum of the two lead characters. J.D. and Elliot hooked up several times early on, J.D. thought he loved her at one point, he told her and got her to dump Scott Foley, and then he decided he didn't love her after all. She held a grudge for a while, then they slowly became friends again, and now the issue of will-they-or-won't-they is mostly dead. It felt real, it felt seamless, and it worked. Sam and Diane would be jealous.

But, what I think has stayed most consistent about "Scrubs," and what has set it apart from other sitcoms, is its ability to go from silly, physical comedy that is still somehow smart, to real, emotional drama that never feels overcooked, without the shift in tone feeling unnatural. For example, the fourth season episode "My Hypocritical Oath" opens with a silly but funny sequence involving J.D., mango body butter and a scooter accident, while the last three minutes of fifth season episode "My Lunch" will break your heart. Yet, both feel like quintessential "Scrubs" moments. And sometimes, the show can touch you and be silly at the same time (rest in peace, Brad Delp).

"Scrubs" has the ability to poke fun of other doctor shows that have come after it ("House" and "Grey's Anatomy" are frequent targets), as well as the guts to make fun of itself (the quote that opened this piece is as much a dig at "Scrubs" as it is at "Grey's"). Nobody who deserves it is safe. Outside of "South Park," how many programs can make that claim?

Rather than falling off, the show has maintained its quality, an amazing achievement for such a long run. In fact, it was during this latest sixth season that the long-awaited musical episode appeared (entitled, not surprisingly, "My Musical"), which received raves from critics and fans alike ("Guy Love," the best-known song from the episode, can be found here). I'm no fan of musicals, but I was impressed at how the writers were able to come up with a premise that actually made sense (a patient claims to hear everyone singing). And, the songs made me laugh.

The musical outing was just the latest in a series of efforts to shake up the show's format, whether it was an episode that morphs into a traditional multi-camera sitcom (when a "Cheers" writer comes in for treatment), or one of the several installments that shifted the internal monologue voice-over from J.D. to one of the other lead characters.

In the last two seasons, "Scrubs" was dumped into impossible time slots as a mid-season replacement. This season all it was asked to do was take on "Grey's Anatomy" and "CSI." Not surprisingly, the show has gotten pummelled in the ratings. But, for whatever reason, I read recently that NBC is considering bringing it back for a seventh season.

When Dr. Cox said "nothing ever changes," he was annoyed, but in the world of "Scrubs," I think it is a good thing. With many older shows that are brought back for another season, I cringe and worry that maybe the network should quit while it is ahead and end the show before it jumps the shark (or jumps it even further). But Bill Lawrence and his crew have earned my trust. Now I'm rooting for a seventh season. Bring on the guest stars. Bring on the classic rock songs. I'm ready.