Friday, January 23, 2009

"Scrubs" Returns With a New Direction, and Networks Should Take Note

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

After the completion of its seventh season (cut short by the writers' strike) last spring, NBC dropped "Scrubs." But ABC swooped in and picked up the single-camera sitcom, launching it as a mid-season replacement (Tuesday nights at 9:00 and 9:30 p.m. Eastern). The ABC version of "Scrubs" debuted with two episodes on January 6, with two additional installments airing on January 13, and the ratings have been far from stellar. The show finished third in its time slot on January 13 at both 9:00 and 9:30, attracting right around 6.7 million viewers for each. So was ABC's decision to pick up "Scrubs" a failure? No, it has actually been a success, and on two completely different levels.

Business before pleasure, as they say. No matter how you slice the "Scrubs" ratings, they aren't great. It was trounced by both NBC's "The Biggest Loser" (more than 12 million masochists tuned in to watch obese people try and lose weight) and CBS's newest granny-skewing procedural, "The Mentalist" (with more than 19 million cataract-threatened pairs of eyes on hand). (Interestingly, "Loser" far out-performed "The Mentalist" in the key 18-to-49-year-old demographic by more than a full rating point, but "Scrubs" trailed them both.) So what can possibly be the spin that can make "Scrubs" a business success? One magic word: syndication.

You see, "Scrubs" is produced by ABC Studios (formerly called Touchstone Television), even though the show spent its first seven seasons airing on NBC. Until the mid-1990s, federal rules prevented networks from owning programming. The result was that when shows went into syndication, the producers, not the networks, reaped the financial windfall. So, for example, Warner Brothers was the primary financial beneficiary of the success of "Friends" in syndication, not NBC. Same for "Seinfeld" and Castle Rock.

But in a stroke of irony, just as the networks finally secured the long-lobbied-for right to own all or part of the programs they aired, they started filling their schedules with reality programs that had little to no value in syndication. With the amount of sitcoms produced each year falling, syndicators have had to dive deeper to find content, leading to syndication deals for comedies that wouldn't have had a prayer for such distribution 20 years earlier (like, say, "Reba").

Which brings us back to "Scrubs," which was, as a result, in high demand when it hit the syndication market in 2006. Now you can find "Scrubs" everywhere you turn, from your local station, to Comedy Central, to TV Land and elsewhere. "Scrubs" is nearing the "Law & Order" level of ubiquity. And who is profiting from the syndication treasure trove? Not NBC. No, ABC, as the owner of the program, is the one pulling in the big syndication bucks.

So when "Scrubs" airs on Tuesday nights and attracts its meager six-plus million viewers, ABC executives can still smile, because they know that each episode they produce for the rest of 2009 will bring back multiple times its cost in syndication sales. The fact that the show can draw a respectable audience (it still nearly doubled Fox's viewership for "Fringe" on January 13, and more than tripled the CW's number for "Privileged") is almost a bonus. Make no mistake, "Scrubs" is a hit, financially anyway, without generating a hit-level audience.

(Of course, if the ratings for "Scrubs" really tank, ABC could pull it from the schedule and either burn off the episodes after May sweeps or air them online, while still selling them into syndication. But even if that happens, it will only demonstrate that if a network can get a sitcom it owns through four seasons, it then will have the safety net of syndication for subsequent seasons if the ratings don't pan out.)

It amazes me that "Scrubs" is one of the few instances of a network taking advantage of this kind of situation. But it shouldn't be too surprising, since the networks have such a short-sighted, win-now, this-quarter's-earnings-above-all approach to programming (I discussed this problem in a column last February). As the television landscape continues to change, and the power of the networks continue to wane, the "Scrubs" model offers one way to gain some long-term traction, if only the networks could see past last night's ratings to access it.

Business dispensed, on to the pleasure, and this season of "Scrubs" has certainly been pleasurable. In my January preview of new shows, I relayed that Bill Lawrence, the creator of "Scrubs," promised in an online video that the program would go back to its early season roots, mixing wacky comedy and gut-punch drama. After watching the first four installments of this season, it seems to me Lawrence was throwing us a bit of a curve, because he's shepherded the show into new territory. I like it, but it was jarring at first, and it took me a couple of installments to adjust. (All four episodes are available for viewing on

Even though the characters retain their jovial natures, this eighth season has everyone behaving a bit more adult (just a bit ... this is "Scrubs," after all). As befitting the development of the characters, J.D. (Zach Braff) and Elliot (Sarah Chalke) have a new maturity that marks a subtle shift from earlier seasons. In the second episode, "My Last Words," J.D. and his best friend, Turk (Donald Faison), give up their "steak night" tradition to keep a lonely, dying man company in the hospital (the gravitas-infused Glynn Turner, who did a great job as Blair Underwood's angry and grieving father on HBO's "In Treatment," plays the patient), with the discussion inevitably turning to death. There is a darker and moodier vibe to the season (even the photography seems more nuanced) that was really at the fore in the bedside scenes.

That's not to say the episodes can't also be funny. In fact, one of J.D.'s lines at the dying man's bedside made Entertainment Weekly's weekly roundup of humorous snippets of dialogue (J.D. to Turk after he pokes holes in J.D.'s claim to be allergic to beer in front of the patient: "Even though I'm a man, I don't like beer. I prefer appletinis, they make me feel fancy. There, you hurt and embarrassed me. Are you happy?").

This season really hit its stride in the fourth episode, "My Happy Place," the latest one to air, and the first one after Courtney Cox's three-episode guest arc ended. (Cox was great, but her role as the new chief of medicine dragged attention away from the core group of characters, which is not what we "Scrubs" fans want in the final season.) Two major ongoing plot arcs are addressed in "My Happy Place": Dr. Kelso's (Ken Jenkins) retirement and the will-they-or-won't-they dance between J.D. and Elliott. The way the show handles both of these story lines demonstrates why it is so unique and beloved.

As for Dr. Kelso, after hapless lawyer Ted (Sam Lloyd) asks the question everyone has wondered (why Dr. Kelso continues to hang out in the hospital's coffee shop after his retirement), Dr. Kelso talks about going on a trip with his wife, only for J.D. and Elliott to catch him in a different coffee shop across town. Dr. Kelso's reaction -- and his ultimate course of action -- were not what you would expect from a typical sitcom. (I won't say more in the hope that my constant drumbeat of support for "Scrubs" might actually get some people to watch the show, and I don't want to be a spoiler.) But as Dr. Kelso prepares to leave J.D. and Elliott in the coffee shop, the tone and the music were more reminiscent of Braff's feature film "Garden State" than a sitcom.

But the highlight of the episode is the conversation that J.D. and Elliott have about the prospects of the two of them trying again as a couple (after Dr. Kelso mistakenly thinks they are back together). The conversation scenes are borderline surreal, taking place in total blackout, as if the characters were on the stage of a dark theater with a single spotlight on their table. Which is appropriate, since the scene plays more like a snippet from a play than it does like a scene from a television comedy. The back-and-forth is naturalistic and smart and funny, with multiple references to past episodes, feeling at times like the characters are articulating what the audience must be thinking, especially when J.D. and Elliott "blah-blah-blah" each other when they say something that has been said so many times before.

Lawrence's approach to the J.D.-Elliott relationship throughout the show has been to get away from done-to-death sitcom conventions, something he pokes fun at in the scene. J.D. says to Elliott, "We don't have to be that couple where one of us says that they're moving out of town, the other has to rush to the airport to stop them; we don't have to argue about whether or not we're on a break," to which Elliott replies, "You watched the 'Friends' marathon last night, didn't you." Again, I won't ruin the outcome of their discussion, but suffice to say that it comes off with such subtlety, intelligence and feeling, it is deeply affecting and satisfying, even though the resolution is incredibly simple and low-key, especially for a major plot twist.

Television is a better place for the presence of "Scrubs" on the schedule, even if it will only be there for a few more months. It's true that I'm talking about the quality of the entertainment, but I could just as easily be talking about the business decisions behind this eighth season as well. Maybe the lesson of ABC's actions with "Scrubs" will lead the networks to think long-term and invest more resources in quality comedies and wean themselves off of low-quality, middling-rated reality programs, which offer only short-term benefits. The odds of this happening are long, but so were the chances of "Scrubs" surviving for eight seasons.