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Fall '01: "Scrubs"

Money-back guarantee. Relatively painless dental procedure. IRS audit. All three seemingly innocuous phrases nevertheless summon up a sense of dread among anyone with a day's worth of experience in this oft-cruel world. They promise a degree of normalcy and routine they simply can't deliver, masking the discomfort and anxiety they're sure to bring in benign-but-meaningless terms. We're told not to worry, that this sort of thing happens to everybody, but we know better. We know better.

Add another entry into that collection of alarm-triggering HappyTalk phrases -- NBC sitcom. Utter those words to people in the know, and you'll detect a noticeable shiver run through their bodies. Why? Because like a money-back guarantee, an NBC sitcom usually ends up delivering less than it promises. Like a relatively painless dental procedure, it tends to register something between a dull ache and blinding agony. And like an IRS audit, an NBC sitcom isn't -- in any way, shape or form -- fun to endure.

Since the debut of Friends in 1994, NBC has enjoyed a widely viewed platform from which to launch new comedies. In the ensuing seven years, the network has managed to produce only one hit show, Will & Grace. A Just Shoot Me here and a Third Rock from the Sun there manages to eke out a meager existence every now and again, but the vast majority of NBC offerings in that time have featured Jonathan Silverman and Jenny McCarthy braying at jokes only they could understand, Brooke Shields and Christina Applegate staring silently off into space, and Steven Weber performing in front of an audience of crickets. Add to that dismal track record the sense of sameness that pervades NBC -- that you could swap out a Chandler Bing for a Niles Crane or a Jack McFarland and wind up with pretty much the same show -- and the Peacock Network doesn't have a lot going for it, sitcom-wise.

Of course, maybe you find things like originality off-putting and you're easily distracted by the sound of your own laughter. In that case, what NBC's been offering the past couple of years should be right up your alley.

So it's a surprise, then, to learn that the new comedy series Scrubs airs on NBC. First off, the show isn't about beautiful twenty-somethings who lounge around all day exchanging one-liners about their latest romantic conquests. There's no laugh track to tell you when someone's just made a funny. The characters don't meet at a coffee shop. There's yet to be an episode featuring a comical misunderstanding of some sort. And I seriously doubt if a crossover episode with Just Shoot Me is in the works.

Scrubs also happens to be very funny, which sets it apart from, what, almost every other NBC sitcom?

Since Scrubs focuses on the travails of first-year interns in a hospital, the show really has more in common with ER than any of the current sitcoms in NBC's lineup. The difference? On ER, if an intern were to botch a routine medical procedure, it would lead to pulse-pounding music, nausea-inducing camera work and a pained expression from Anthony Edwards. On Scrubs, that sort of thing is the cue for the comedy to begin. It's to the credit of the writers and the Scrubs cast that jokes about a draining procedure gone awry elicit laughter instead of groans or, worse, stony silence.

Rather than ER, Scrubs bears a greater similarity to Malcolm in the Middle. Normally, this would mean a pale knockoff featuring a smart-assed kid who always talked directly to the camera. In this case, however, I mean it as a compliment. Like Malcolm, Scrubs eschews the conventions of the sitcom genre. Instead of following the tried and no-longer-true setup-punch line pattern of sitcom humor, Scrubs allows its jokes to come from all directions -- even out of left field. The stock medical drama scene where the veteran doctor quizzes eager young interns on disease symptoms and treatments becomes a comic version of Jeopardy on Scrubs. The sight of two over-competitive colleagues trying to pass each one another down a hallway becomes a footrace worthy of "Chariots of Fire."

In the hands of a gimmick-crazed producer -- don't worry, David E. Kelley, we aren't going to finger-point here -- these flights of fancy could get really old really quick. So far in its admittedly brief broadcast run, Scrubs has managed to walk the fine line between inspired silliness and forced outrageousness.

The Scrubs cast is solid, if not exactly spectacular, with one notable exception. Whoever had the bright idea to cast John C. McGinley deserves a lifetime studio parking space, a year's supply of the frosty beverage of his or her choice and a three-show development deal at Fox. McGinley plays Dr. Cox, a weary veteran of the ER who has neither the time nor the patience to play father figure to a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears interns. McGinley's expressions are priceless; his line readings are a scream. It's impossible to do justice to the exquisite contempt and palpable irritation he infuses in every snippet of dialogue.

"Worst case scenario?" McGinely's Dr. Cox says to an intern about to spend his first night on call in the ER. "You kill somebody, and that hangs over your head for the rest of your life. But that is absolutely the worst case scenario."

Zach Braff, Sarah Chalke and Donald Faison are all acceptable as the fresh-faced interns, and I have a decided fondness for Ken Jenkins' portrayal of a seemingly kindly old doctor who may well be the most evil M.D. on earth. But if Scrubs should at some point morph into "The John C. McGinley Show," you will hear no complaints from this corner.

As inventive as the way "Scrubs" tells its story may be, the story it has to tell isn't exactly a new one. Fellow Vidiot and TeeVee medical correspondent Gregg Wrenn noted several similarities between the "Scrubs" pilot and a book called "House of God" by Samuel Shem which, coincidentally, is about fresh-faced medical interns and all their zany misadventures. The scene in Scrubs where an intern calls his resident to ask if he can dispense aspirin? In the book. The "Old patients are there so we can learn how to treat young patients" speech? In the book. And so on.

Of course, to notice those similarities, you'd probably have to be a fairly avid book reader. And if the e-mail we get is anything to go buy, that rules out about two-thirds of TeeVee's demographic. And at any rate, I'd rather my TV comedies draw on well-received medical satires for inspiration instead of aping Friends for the umpteenth time.

Original or no, Scrubs is certainly one of the better shows to debut this fall. It's funny, engaging and worth a look or two. Even if it doesn't make your own personal lineup of must-watch shows, you certainly won't walk away from Scrubs feeling like you've wasted a half-hour of your evening.

And when was the last time you could say that about an NBC sitcom?


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