When “Scrubs” has its season premiere tonight on NBC, it will mark the start to the unfortunate end of one of the most groundbreaking sitcoms ever on television.
The show is the first single-camera comedy – that means no live studio audience, no laugh track – and it breaks almost every other rule of the half-hour comedy. There’s a recurrent voice-over of the main characters’ thoughts, and dramatic plot points seep into nearly every episode. It changed the way character can function in primetime comedy.
When the show leaves the air, its legacy will not. At this point, the comedic style can almost be considered old school, especially true in the wake of witty, hour-long dramedies like “Chuck” and “House.” The show has found a happy medium between popular (and serious) hospital dramas “ER” and “Grey’s Anatomy” with the quirky, lovable smile of Dr. John Dorian (Zach Braff, “Garden State”).
That might seem unlikely for a show that’s clearly a comedy, but this is in no way a typical sitcom. Even with an extensive cast of essential characters – JD, Turk, Dr. Cox, Kelso, Elliot, Carla, Ted and high-fiving womanizer The Tod – the show’s players are developed more deeply than those on any other sitcom on television. Where most are relatively stagnant, on “Scrubs” each of the multitude of characters has gone through significant transformation over the course of seven years. The fact that even the less important characters go through considerable changes was visionary when the show first aired and has changed the way we conceive TV comedy.
Without these characters, much of the comedy would be lost. The repartee between J.D. and the janitor (who is never actually given a name) is often the subject of entire episode, like when the janitor devises an elaborate lie about a janitorial conference so he can put J.D. in yet another uncomfortable situation, or “get” J.D. Per usual, though, the janitor’s plan backfires and he ends up “getting” himself.
Elliot’s metamorphosis, from scared Connecticut rich-girl intern to ass-kicking hot doctor revealed levels of character unknown to comedies of its generation. Viewers watched as J.D. went from an overwhelmed intern to a slightly less frazzled resident to finally being comfortable with himself as Dr. Cox’s right-hand attending physician. Even Turk transforms from a self-confident frat-boy surgeon to a concerned and caring father. What’s so amazing about “Scrubs” is that each of these dramatic transformations happened within a genuinely funny half-hour comedy.
“Scrubs” has also had a revolving door of well-known guest stars, who individually have brought a pair of main characters closer together. When Michael J. Fox played an OCD, double specialty dream doc, J.D. struggled with the reality of not yet finding a mentor.
Kelso and Dr. Cox grew closer over a shared hatred of a bubbly character played by Heather Graham. (That episode produced the timeless quote “people are bastard-coated bastards with bastard fillings.”) And Dr. Cox and Jordan’s strange relationship was introduced with the appearance of Heather Locklear as a sexy drug rep.
It’s also impressive that as the show enters its final season it hasn’t been squeezed dry of the innovation that first made it so appealing. The characters are as surprising as ever, and the comedic edge is still fresh enough to be relevant in today’s television. It begins tonight poised to end with the same panache as when it began.
Thursdays at 9:30 p.m.