Thursday, May 15, 2008

The “Scrubs” Finale That Wasn’t and “30 Rock” Lost in Washington (and an Upfronts Recap)

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

More than five million “Scrubs” fans tuned in last Thursday to watch the last episode of the sitcom for the season (or maybe ever), and, a couple of minutes into the action, most of them probably had the same thought at the same time: What was Dr. Kelso doing in the hospital?

Let me explain. Last Thursday was not only the season finale of “Scrubs,” but the finale of its run on NBC. That means that unless reports were true and ABC was planning on picking up the show (ABC did, in fact, pick up the show this week as a mid-season replacement next year), last Thursday’s edition was to be the series finale.

So loyal fans had every right to expect something special. But what we found was that the last episode of the season wasn’t even the last episode of the season! Three weeks ago, the staff, after doing nothing, finally rallies to save the job of chief of medicine Dr. Kelso (Ken Jenkins), only to have the cranky sexagenarian quit anyway. It was a major moment in “Scrubs” history, since, other than Dr. Elliot Reid’s (Sarah Chalke) short-lived time at an endocrinology fellowship and free clinic (after the fellowship is canceled), the main cast members have stayed in Sacred Heart Hospital for the entire seven-year run of the show. Two weeks ago, Kelso is shown in his retirement, responding to a phone call asking for help from Carla (Judy Reyes) with uncontrolled laughter before hanging up.

So when Dr. Kelso appears in the hospital early in the season finale last week, laying down the law on work hours to the doctors, “Scrubs” Nation let out a collective “What the ....”

Clearly, NBC and/or the show’s producers decided that the theme of the episode that aired last week, in which the cast all take on medieval roles in the bedtime story Dr. Cox (John C. McGinley) tells his son, was grander and more fitting for a finale, in case “Scrubs” did not return next season, than the two episodes that preceded it chronologically. So the network just aired them out of order, holding the Dr. Cox story for last week.

I’m sure the writers’ strike, which led to fewer episodes being shot this season, had the effect of condensing story lines. And I’m also sure that series executive producer Bill Lawrence had a pretty good idea that his creation was heading to ABC next year. But still: After sticking with the show through multiple time-period shifts and routine graveyard scheduling against juggernauts like “Grey’s Anatomy,” the fans deserved better than a non-finale.

At least the episode was funny. It was almost worth having it air out of order to hear Dr. Cox, as a medieval night, say to a disease monster: “My name is Percival Cox. You're killing my friend. Prepare to die,” in an homage to “The Princess Bride.” And more importantly, “Scrubs” fans have another season of the show’s potent mix of silly comedy and heartfelt drama to look forward to, so a lousy season swan song (or, really, a complete lack of one) is a small annoyance to endure.

Maybe bad season finales are contagious, because on the same night that Dr. Kelso stepped into a time machine, “30 Rock” said goodbye for the summer without putting its best foot forward.

Again, I have no doubt that the abbreviated run of episodes faced by show-runners thanks to the strike had to be a royal pain as they tried to wrap up their story arcs for the year. That has to be a big part of the explanation for why “30 Rock,” which is usually so sure-footed and confident in its story telling, finished the season off so haphazardly.

It felt to me that the final half-hour encompassed what was supposed to be the last two offerings of the term. For most of Thursday’s episode, Jack (Alec Baldwin) is in Washington trying to get out of his new job as a Homeland Security director in the comically crumbling Bush administration (along with a beaten-down, ineffectual career government slave named Cooter played by the perfectly cast Matthew Broderick), while, back in New York, Liz (Tina Fey) deals with a pregnancy scare, Tracy (Tracy Morgan) and Frank (Judah Friedlander) work on their porn video game, and Jenna (Jane Krakowski) helps Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) evade the sabotage of the evil head page to get his application in to be a page at the Beijing Olympics. It all leads to Liz deciding she wants a baby. Then, in the last minute, we get a lightening-fast three-month flash-forward that shows us Kenneth being threatened by a gunman while he is in bed with a Chinese woman, Jack about to make out with Cooter (it involves a “gay bomb” ... don’t ask), and Frank emerging (with a full beard) after playing a prototype of the porn video game for three months, prompting Tracy to declare that he is going to be billionaire.

I nearly got whiplash. It’s as if the episode that was supposed to get us to the cliffhangers was left behind when the post-strike cuts were made.

The other problem with the season finale, which has really been an issue for a while now on the show, is that “30 Rock” seems to have lost its focus. Go back and read my description of what the characters were doing in the last episode. Not one word is mentioned about “TGS,” the sketch program they all work on. Jack is not even working for NBC, and, most disturbingly, Jack isn’t even in the same city as Liz. One of the things that made “30 Rock” so great was the interaction of Liz and her co-workers as she tried to put on a good program despite the mountain of obstacles thrown in her way by her colleagues. I want to see her and the gang worrying more about “TGS” and less about increasingly broad side topics like porn video games and pregnancy scares. It’s hard to believe that these story lines come from the same show that introduced us to “MILF Island” (and the faux reality show’s catch line for booting competitors: “We no longer want to hit that. Get off MILF Island!”).

Like “Scrubs,” “30 Rock” will be back next year. I am confident that without the strike interruption, the brilliant comedy will get back on track.

Tonight, the other half of the NBC Thursday night schedule, “My Name Is Earl” and “The Office,” bow out until next season. Let’s hope whatever virus infected the finales of “Scrubs” and “30 Rock” doesn’t jump weeks and afflict “Earl” and “The Office,” too.


Here is a quick recap of how the concerns about this week’s upfronts that I wrote about last week played out. I will save my thoughts on the new shows added to the schedule for another day.

The post-“Office” time slot currently held by “Scrubs” will be filled by a prime-time, politically oriented version of “Saturday Night Live” until the election. An “Office” spin-off will then jump into the 9:30 space for the second half of the year. And Jimmy Fallon was, in fact, tapped to take over for Conan O’Brien when he moves into the host’s chair of “The Tonight Show.”

The big news, of course, is that “Scrubs” will join ABC as a mid-season replacement next year. “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” however, was picked up by CBS, so it won’t be moving to ABC. “October Road” and “Miss Guided,” two guilty pleasures of mine, didn’t make the cut, along with “Carpoolers” and “Caveman,” which will be missed by nobody.

I am ready to send flowers to CBS head honcho Les Moonves. Not only did the network renew “How I Met Your Mother,” it also added a second night of sitcoms. Yes, you read that correctly, a broadcast network is opting voluntarily to air more sitcoms next season than it did this year. Please look away. I don’t want you to see me cry, even if they are tears of joy.

The Murdoch network canned the promising “Back to You” and yet found room for another season of the generally reviled “’Til Death.” Go figure. “New Amsterdam” also didn’t make the schedule. Nice to see my occasional guilty pleasures “Don’t Forget the Lyrics!” and “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” return. Let’s hope the “Lyrics!” producers decide to do more celebrity episodes. Watching Bret Michaels go out on the hair metal category was priceless.

The CW canceled “Aliens in America,” opting to include only two sitcoms on its entire schedule. Interestingly, the mini-network licensed its Sunday nights out to an outside company to handle the programming, much in the same way the networks rent out weekend mornings to companies to air kids’ shows. Sunday nights are a heavy viewing night, but it’s also a time that the big networks unleash their heavy hitters, which usually resulted in the CW’s slate getting pummeled in the ratings. Not sure what kind of shows the licensing deal will leave us with, but it will be interesting to see what happens.