Thursday, December 8, 2011

"SCRUBS": SECRETLY, ONE OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL SHOWS OF THE LAST DECADE!

A couple different incidents in the past week have kept my mind wandering back to the TV show "Scrubs". The first one started when I finally got around to watching the episode of the PBS series "Primetime in America," entitled "The Independent Woman." The series, and if you haven't seen it I highly recommend searching for it on pbs.com, where the entire four-part series is online, is about the history of Primetime television in America. I caught  it, on the second episode, and missed this first one, which showcased the image of independent women on TV, showcasing everybody for Lucy Ricardo on "I Love Lucy," to Nancy Botwin on "Weeds." One interesting tidbit struck me as odd on that show and I mentioned it to my mother, who agreed with the analysis. It was a comment made by "Grey's Anatomy" creator Shonda Rhimes, and she mentioned how the secret behind the show is that the entire series is a love story between it's two female leads, Christina and Meredith. Now, I've never liked "Grey's Anatomy"; I'm generally puzzled by its popularity. My mother likes the show though, and this eventually led an argument between "Scrubs," and "Grey's Anatomy". Both shows, strangely have very similar plotlines. In fact, pretty much every incident that she mentioned as an argument for the depth of  "Grey's Anatomy," I argued back that it had occurred on "Scrubs," and then we got into a real argument over which show actually has emotional depth. I think "Scrubs," has far more emotional depth, and I think "Grey's Anatomy," is basically "Scrubs," with a melodramatic tone. That's not to say that "Grey's Anatomy," doesn't have certain things going for it. It is amazingly well-acted, and occasionally, they've had fairly memorable and good episodes; I remember one in particular involving a patient with a live grenade in his body, that was particularly effective. Saying that though, the show is oddly heavy-handed while trying to also be somewhat light-hearted, and it's a strange combination. In fact, I think of it as an old combination. The show always felt to me like, a show that should've been on right after "St. Elsewhere," twenty years ago or something. We've had "ER," "House," "Scrubs," and "Nurse Jackie," since then, and "Grey's..." just feels old comparatively. Also, after watching the pilot episode six years ago, when ABC bizarrely replace "Boston Legal," with it in the 10:00pm Sunday slot after "Desperate Housewives," I remember  predicting from that episode the general arcs of all the main characters of that show, and to be honest, I didn't do that bad a job predicting, whereas "Scrubs"... well, I've constantly been surprised by what happens in that show. She argued that the characters on "Scrubs," were all egotistic and immature, and most of the jokes are silly. I disagree with the silly part, but believe there's a deeper level she's completely missing. Anyway, that's the jist of the argument.

The other incident occurred while watching the latest episode of "How I Met Your Mother," Monday night. The episode began with a strange shift in the show's narration. We had found out in the last episode that Cobie Smulders's character Robin was pregnant, but I didn't expect that the episode would told through her point of view and voiceover, and with her talking to her future kids about finding out she might be pregnant. I probably should've saw it coming, since they never mentioned her character having kids before, but even after it was revealed that she wasn't pregnant, and couldn't have kids, there was still a thought that she probably is about to adopt kids. Then, it was revealed that she didn't, and the kids of hers that they kept cutting back to didn't exist. It was a suckerpunch of an episode. Partly because the audience (me) had been had by the commercials leading up to the episode, which didn't indicate this (and correctly so I might add). The scene ended with a whimsical and emotional example of caring and love for a friend, that included a callback to an AC/DC reference. I then went on to enjoy "2 Broke Girls," which came on after, but the next morning, I woke up thinking about that ending of "How I Met Your Mother," again. I even started crying a bit. I tweeted it even. Comedy shows have thrown us suckerpunches like that before, many times in fact. Anybody who doesn't tear up after watching the episode of "M*A*S*H" where Henry Blake leaves, has no soul. Yet, the moment I think of almost as much as that episode in terms of a shockingly sad emotional twist is "Scrubs." In fact, that show probably defied more typical sitcom expectations than any other show I can think of. It had many twists, but one in particular launched the show into greatness. It occurred in the first season, again, unexpectedly, as the only advertised clue ahead of time was that actor Brendan Fraser was a guest star on the episode that week. The episode, written by creator/showrunner Bill Lawrence included a motif of mistakes being made in the hospital. Then after a few red flags involving Fraser's character, who turns out to be Jordan's brother and Dr. Cox's close friend, his tests results come back, there's a strong indication that they also might be mistaken. The episodes ends with a surprisingly emotional moment, which has a similar twist to the "How I Met Your Mother," episode, as we suddenly reveal that much of what we've just seen was an imaginary scenario that took place inside a character's mind. I had a flashback to the first time I saw that episode of "Scrubs." [The youtube clip below is part one of that episode.] I cried at the ending of it to the first time..., well, every time I see it. I know it's an editing trick, a writing cheat practically, but I got so caught up in the mind of the character that I bought it, hook, line and sinker. "Scrubs," did that better than anybody, even better than "The Office," does. It can shift drastically and heartbreaking between some outlandish comedy and dramatic realism.

I consider "Scrubs," the most influential, non-animated, basic TV series of the last decade. Yet, it was never a rating hit and was practically ignored by most Award shows. Not one regular actor in fact, ever got an Emmy nomination. I was skeptical at first. I don't think it was ever promoted correctly, by NBC, or later by ABC (And yes, I even liked that last season when they switched to Med School students). It was one of the first shows on basic TV to use the now-popular single-camera format for sitcoms, (Although there has been an attempt to bring back the three-camera audience format) and use it not simply for convenience, but for the freedom the format allows. All the characters at some point experience aberrations, usually in the form of daydreams. "Scrubs," practically uses the structure that "Family Guy," does in fact, continually jumping to a random sequence. Almost all of them in "Scrubs," are through the mind of JD, the main character played by Zach Braff. There's something else unusual with the show, the narration. It's more common now, but narration in a sitcom isn't particularly new. "Soap," always began an ended with its famous mock-soap opera narration from "The Price is Right," announcer Rod Roddy. "The Wonder Years," is the first sitcom to have any kind of 1st person narration, Daniel Stern voicing the grown-up Kevin Arnold character, as the story revolves around his youth in the late '60s. Recently though, some form of narration has become common in sitcoms. The aformentioned "How I Met Your Mother," uses a similar narration to "The Wonder Years," from Bob Saget, and shows as varied as "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd," "My So-Called Life," "Malcolm in the Middle", "Arrested Development," "My Name is Earl", "Desperate Housewives," "The Bernie Mac Show," "Everybody Hates Chris," "The Middle," "Suburgatory," yes, "Grey's Anatomy," and "Sex and the City,' have used narration in recent years. I discussed "Sex and the City"'s narration in an earlier blog, and "Scrubs," uses a similar version. In "Sex and the City," there's an understanding that the narration, which comes from Carrie Bradshaw's weekly column, is subjective, and filtered through its main character, so that the events in the article and on the screen can range wildly from what the actual events are, they have hints of realism, but are also as much a creative writer's reimagining of events into what eventually becomes her column. So, there's an understanding that what we're watching is oftentimes an exaggeration of what actually happened. "Scrubs," takes this concept a step or two further. First off, the narration takes the form of stream-of-consciousness. It's actually used as his thoughts, and they often wander, usually for humorous effect. Some of things that he thinks of are egocentric, but isn't everybody's? And doesn't everybody's mind wander. There's some study that says men tink about sex every eight seconds, that should show up in stream-of-conscious narration if that's true. His narration is also subjective. He experiences the world in his own interpretation of the events. This is the key that episode I mentioned earlier. While much of what is shown is later revealed to be in JD's imagination, it is NOT a fake reality to him. He actually goes through the experience, even though it's just in his mind. He daydreams and aberrations also are his own thoughts. (Or, when occasionally the narration is switched to another character's mind, it's their own thoughts) This is also true of some of the events that aren't simply in JD's mind. The clear example of this is his ongoing feud with the hospital Janitor, played by actor Neil Flynn. In the Janitor's mind, JD has pissed him off, so he goes out of his way to annoy JD as much as possible. Some of the techniques he uses go to cartoonishly violent extremes. Granted they work in a hospital and JD is a doctor, but he never seems to get seriously injured by Janitor. Is the Janitor really annoying him and making his life hell? I think he is, but he might not be to the extent that JD experiences. Some of these incidents resemble what would probably happen if one of Wile E. Coyote's ploys actually worked. They're not all meant to be taken as literally as some of JD's other experiences, but they're meant to be thought of as emotionally true, much the same way that some of what Carrie Bradshaw's column might be exaggerated and/or altered.

This leads to another question about if those scenes that aren't just aberrations but are also, the emotional experience of events through JD's mind, then what scenes in "Scrubs," are in fact literal? It might be believable that Dr Cox, continually calls JD by girls name, but is it believable that he always talks in long monologue-length epitaths of insults to him every time they talk? A lot of this can be subjective and possibly discussed to greated detail than even I'm going into, but because the comedic parts of the show can be so over-the-top, that makes the parts that aren't tend to stun the audience, and its characters into a brutal reality that's surprisingly emotional..., and very real. This happens often in the show, usually at the most unsuspecting of moments. During one episode, that's seems almost blatantly sitcomish, Carla and Turk get into petty fights after JD moves out of the house, and they realize all that he does for them, mostly consisting of household chores, until by the end of the episode, he's movied back in. Then, strangely, just as the show ends, they ask an innocuous question to JD about how he manages to do so much, and his answer, a simple remark about how much you're willing to do things for those you care about, instead of becoming a moment about how close the three friends are, Carla and Turk come to the sudden abrupt realization that their marriage is in serious trouble.

I should also note that part of these realizations effect is that the show's character have an interesting quirk that's actually become quite common on TV, where TV character are incredibly knowledgeable about television, especially sitcoms. This is partly because the writers of TV shows nowadays, are people who, like myself, grew up watching loads of TV, including reruns of classic TV. We live in a generation where you're expected to keep up with every obscure "Family Guy," reference, and the characters on "Scrubs," can do that. On "Scrubs," this is use to the fullest of effects , often taking obvious sitcom premises and episodes and just when you think you can predict the ending, there's a sudden twist complete turn that predictable happy ending right on its head, usually during moments of brutal truthtelling. There's also a slight awareness that the characters are in a sitcom, often with occasional 4th-wall breaking references. They even shot one episode in front of a studio audience, using the 3-camera format to show the differences between a regular sitcom and "Scrubs," a little more clearly. (Another example of moments that occurred in JD's head that were only true emotionally.)

Strange that a show where characters are childish, quirky and egotistical, and is led by a protagonist that's  needy and effeminate can be more believable and realistic than some modern-day dramatic medical shows, like ones named "Grey's Anatomy," for instance. (Alright, yeah, I'm still obsessing over the aforementioned argument, but it's annoying when someone's wrong, and they should be informed of it until they realize it.) However, are they actually like that? Their thoughts and emotions might be, that's been clearly explained, however, if were watching their emotional reactions in a moment-to-moment stream-of-consciousness, than logic dictates that they in fact act differently then the behavior we see onscreen. Are there good doctors and bad doctors, and quirk-filled supporting characters, that are somewhat caricaturish? Yes, no, and maybe, but do they actually act like that? The key to the show is that most of the characters are in fact complete professionals. There's some that are emotional. Others are needy and egotistic, some are shy, others are selfish. Some went into medicine for the money, others went in to serve their God complex, others actually care about helping people. They even have a character that went into medicine because she gets excited about the inner workings of the body, and has incredibly difficult time caring about the patients as humans. They're all flawed. And sometimes, they're job sucks, and they distract themselves with the trivial just to get through the day. I'd argue that those descriptions describe most every doctor I've ever met. And distracting oneself from so they can deal with their job...? The ultimate dirty secret of "Scrubs," that while it's influence goes can be seen everywhere  on TV today, is that it's a direct descendant of the greatest of all TV shows, "M*A*S*H". No, it's not that great, but it doesn't aim for it either. You can't possibly, "M*A*S*H," takes place in a warzone, and is a literal hell and, "Scrubs," takes place at a regular old hospital, but what's the difference between using booze, women, and hijinks to distract you from the realities of meatball surgery than using the random thoughts of your own mind to help you get enough courage to tell somebody you like that they've got an incurable disease?  A distraction from work is a necessary distraction no matter the form it takes.

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