"You're in medicine, you gotta accept the fact that everything we do here -- everything -- is a stall. We're just trying to keep the game going; that's it. But, ultimately, it always ends up the same way." - Dr. Cox - "My Old Lady" - Ep1x04 - 10/16/01
"I just can't get over the fact that one minute I'm here, and the next I am not."
-George Valentine - "My Last Words" - Ep8x02 - 01/06/08
For all the wackiness, for all the in-jokes, fantasy sequences, for all the musical numbers, and puns, Scrubs has always been about death. While ER got credit as the first hospital show where patients regularly died, Scrubs surely was the comedy with the highest body count. And it was the specter of death, the understanding that hospitals are merely a stop-gap, a place where life begins and ends, that gave the show its core power. And its relatively casual attitude towards the grim reaper has been one of the reasons why Scrubs remains the most realistic medical show on television according to most actual doctors and nurses.
For the last eight years, Scrubs has taken turns being either the best comedy or best drama on television, depending on the given episode. While it's best known for its outlandish humor and the arbitrary fantasy sequences of its lead (Dr. John Dorian, played by Zach Braff), it remains one of the most brutally heart tugging shows on television. It has never been a winner at the Emmys, nor a kingpin in the Nielsens, and it's been off its game for the last few years just a bit, if only compared to itself (too much zaniness, with the drama sometimes being too on-the nose). Creator Bill Lawrence has used the last-minute rescue by ABC (which owns the show and distributes the DVDs) to correct said flaws. For those not in the know, after years of NBC renewing it at the last minute just so ABC couldn't steal it, then treating it like garbage, NBC finally let it go last season. Aside from the obvious difference of Scrubs finally airing in widescreen high-definition, the results of the tinkering appear almost immediately (the issues are directly referenced in a witty post-credits bit after the first episode).
The show is a calmer one, the action less frantic, and the humor less outlandish. The drama is far less on the nose than in seasons 5 and 6, and much more succinct hearkening back to seasons 1-3. And, most importantly, the characters feel as old as they are. JD starts the new season with a five-o'clock shadow, and it really feels like he's been doing this for eight years. The passage of time has always been a theme on the show (characters have gotten married, gotten divorced, moved away from each other, changed jobs, and started families), and the core of the first episode concerned JD and Dr. Cox's shared frustration that the same things kept happening (lazy interns and barbaric chiefs of medicine). In a welcome nod to the fact that this wasn't season 1 anymore, Cox and JD actually had a normal, honest conversation about their issues that was more like two colleagues rather than the usual student/mentor relationship that has struggled to remain plausible since season four.
The second episode, "My Last Words", was the true powerhouse, and frankly one of the finest episodes of the series run. The premise is classically simple, as is the follow-through. JD and Turk decide to cancel their decade-long tradition known as 'steak night' in order to keep a dying patient company. For literally the entire second half the show, it's pretty much just JD, Turk (Donald Faison), and George (Glynn Turman from The Wire) sitting in a hospital room talking about George's life, and their feelings about death. No broad gags, no fantasy sequences, just three guys in a room talking about mortality, with one guy who won't make it through the night. And because this is Scrubs, George's death was sad but not tragic. There really weren't any lessons to be learned, and in the end it was just Turk and JD sitting on the hospital roof; possibly, to hearken back to "My Old Lady" 'thinking of all the things they still have yet to do'.
For eight years, Scrubs has been arguably the best show on television, even with stiff competition at times. At its peak, it was funnier than Arrested Development and 30 Rock, every bit a geek wonderland as The Big Bang Theory, smarter than House, and more emotionally compelling than Six Feat Under. And it is certainly preferable in every way to Grey's Anatomy ("It's like they've been watching our lives," JD remarked in season five, "and put it on TV"). Creator Bill Lawrence originally stated that he wanted a live-action version of The Simpsons. And he has succeeded. Like that animated masterpiece, Scrubs is both one of the funniest comedies ever made and one of the most moving dramas ever aired. It single-handedly kept me out of a serious funk during my first few months in LA (no job, few friends, etc), and apparently many fans have similar claims on the almost spiritual effect the show has had on them. If this is to be its final season, I will mourn the show, but it will not be a tragedy. It has done its duty and deserves to go out on whatever terms it chooses. I just hope its last thought is a good one.
Watch both of last night's episodes on ABC's streaming website.