Despite being two satisfyingly funny shows in their own right, the casual viewer might argue that The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother owe most of their popularity to the similarities they share with that almighty juggernaut of sitcoms, Friends. All three are multi-cam shows about a group of chums in their late twenties/early thirties, who regularly hang around each other’s apartments and shoot the shit down their local bar/coffee house/cheesecake factory. Coincidence? It doesn’t really matter, as it’s a formula that seems to click well with worldwide audiences.
When viewed in this context, it’s both unsurprising and a crying shame that Scrubs never garnered the same mass following, and has mostly been confined to the sidelines of mainstream viewership throughout its eight season run (we’re not counting the abysmal 9th season – more on that later). The truth is, when the show premiered back in 2001, there had been nothing quite like it before. Here was a sitcom that eschewed laugh tracks, opted for a single-camera setup and featured surreal daydream sequences that would frequently pop throughout episodes. The latter had a whiff of Family Guy and the hospital setting seemed to suggest we were in for an ER parody, but it soon became clear that Scrubs was very much its own thing.
This ain’t Grey’s Anatomy – Zach Braff & co. bring on the laughs in Scrubs.
What’s especially interesting to note is that, despite the slapstick and goofy comedy, a lot of real life doctors and nurses have often commented that Scrubs is perhaps the most accurate portrayal of the medical profession on TV. The series focuses on the lives and career progressions of a handful of employees at the fictional Sacred Heart hospital, with the majority of the episodes narrated by the show’s protagonist, John “JD” Dorian. An amiable, awkward, yet fundamentally competent doctor, part of the reason JD is such a pleasant character to root for is his fallibility as a human being. The show frequently deals with the insecurities and immense pressures we feel on the job, which are inevitably multiplied by a few thousand when working in a hospital environment. The show seems to suggest that the best way for doctors to deal with these pressures is not through endless romantic liaisons à la Grey’s Anatomy, but through a healthy dose of humour. And who can argue with that?
The fact that each character seems to bring a different brand of comedy to the table is a welcome plus. Elliott is the kooky nerd who has no clue how to approach people without making a tit out of herself. Dr. Cox frequently intimidates his students into submission by launching into interminable verbal tirades. The Janitor (whose name is never truly revealed throughout the entire series) mercilessly haunts JD purely because he may have stuck a penny in the automatic door on his first day at Sacred Heart. And JD & Turk bring on the slapstick and laddish humour with their impeccable “bromantic” double act.
The difficult truth about Scrubs is that it’s a series of two halves. The first four seasons are one of the best runs for any sitcom out there, in which the quality of the writing and performances is consistent throughout. However, season 5 onwards, the moral lessons JD tends to impart at the end of each episode get a little monotonous, and the storylines become muddled up and contrived, especially in season 7, which was no doubt due to the Writers Guild of America strike. Meanwhile, the fact that ABC thought it was a good idea to return for a 9th series AFTER tying things up in an adequately pleasing season finale is utterly bewildering.
With that in mind, it’s a tad difficult to pick a standout season from the excellent first four, but perhaps the third one deserves particular praise simply for the inclusion of “My Screw Up”. Guest-starring Brendan Fraser and with brilliant turns from the central cast, it features a tragic, unexpected twist in the final minutes which is sure to bring a lump to anyone’s throat. It’s the series’ standout episode, which manages to effortlessly balance heart and humour, the mark of a confident sitcom in its prime that’s unafraid to take new routes. You don’t get that on The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother.