We watch... so you don't have to.

TeeVee Awards '02: Best Half-Hour Show and Actor

The thing you have to realize, when you consider the state of the half-hour TV series during these lazy, crazy days of summer 2002, is that this was supposed to be the year NBC finally figured out how to put together an entertaining sitcom. Last spring, Jeff Zucker, the newly ascended head of network programming, stood before a pack of reporters, fielding a steady stream of questions on why it was that NBC sitcoms without the words "Frasier," "Friends" and "Will" in the title appeared to be conceived, written and produced by small children, especially dimwitted house plants, and folks with recently diagnosed brain injuries. Zucker responded with a tack embraced by all savvy head honchos, from Hannibal all the way through Vince Lombardi -- he conceded the problem, blamed it on his exiled predecessors and vowed sweeping changes.

"Thursday at 8:30 has been a problem for us for a few years," Zucker said on that May 2001 day, exhibiting the kind of candor one does not normally associate with the suits at General Electric. "We haven't really put any comedies in there that have lived up to 'Must-See TV.'"

That was going to change, Zucker declared. From that day forward, people would no longer see the closing credits of Friends and shriek in anticipation of the horror that was sure to follow. From now on, when people tuned into NBC on Thursdays at 8:30, the laughs would outnumber the sobs. Because from now on, NBC was going to air a good show in that time slot.

From now on, NBC was going to air Inside Schwartz.

In case you missed it or paid good money to a trained professional to have your brain wiped clean of all unpleasant memories, Inside Schwartz didn't exactly pan out. It was about a single guy aspiring to be a sportscaster who coped with his comically inept love life with daydreams involving famous athletes and sports figures. Like former Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus! And boxing referee Mills Lane! The kids, they love Mills Lane. It was almost like someone saw that scene in "Singles" where Xavier McDaniel counsels Campbell Scott about the heartbreak of premature ejaculation and decided that 10-second sequence would be a great basis for a 24-episode-a-year series.

The show died about as quickly as it took for you to read that last paragraph.

Not to enjoy a cruel laugh at NBC's expense -- though, really, shouldn't we derive some laughter from what the network has been broadcasting in that Indian burial ground of a time slot for the past decade? -- but the failure of Inside Schwartz means that NBC's Thursday at 8:30 p.m. track record for the last seven falls appears thusly:

2001: Inside Schwartz
2000: The Steven Weber Show (nee Cursed)
1999: Jesse
1998: Jesse
1997: Union Square
1996: The Single Guy
1995: The Single Guy

Or as you might more easily recognize it, crap, crap and more crap still. Throw out Friends' aberrational 1994 debut in the Thursday at 8:30 p.m. time slot, and you'd be left with the inexplicably long-lived Wings in 1993, Rhythm & Blues in 1992 (He's a wacky white DJ at an all-black radio station!), and A Different World from 1987 through 1991 -- remaining on the air for the sole purpose of keeping NBC VIP Bill Cosby fat and happy on Pudding Pops. Before that, and you're back to the days of Alex P. Keaton learning important life lessons in Ronald Reagan's America.

And here's the damnedest thing of all -- the entire time Inside Schwartz was stinking up the joint, NBC had in its lineup a perfectly wonderful comedy just biding its time until the world at large began to pay attention. A show that was more than capable of holding its own in the post-Friends time slot. A show that -- at this point in their respective life spans -- is much funnier than Friends. And a show that, in our opinion at least, just happened to be the best half-hour of entertainment you could find on television this year.

Yes, if only 12 months ago, NBC had realized that it had a winner on its hands with Scrubs. Then, maybe the folks who snort and roll their eyes at every little miscue to come out of Burbank -- not that we know any people like that -- would have to wipe the smirks of their faces and give the Peacock its due.

Hey, we're not above saying nice things about NBC if the end result is more shows like Scrubs. All the hallmarks of stellar programming are on display here -- superb writing, engaging storytelling, a cast without a single Johnny Weaklink or Sally Scenechewer in the bunch. But Scrubs also features something else, something that makes us anticipate the arrival of each new episode and lament that moment right after the end credits when we realize that we have to wait another week for the next one: a unique perspective and distinctive voice.

There's a program on television right now -- on NBC, natch -- called The Rerun Show. The idea is a cast of unknowns takes an old sitcom -- Diff'rent Strokes, say, or One Day at a Time -- and reenacts it all ironic-like. The laughter is supposed to come, we suppose, from the idea that, yup, people used to watch shows about billionaire white industrialists adopting precocious black orphans, and they didn't even watch them ironically either, har har. And that's really funny, until you realize that about half the shows on the air today -- Just Shoot Me, My Wife and Kids, Becker, whatever piece of crap Bob Saget has leant his name to this season -- could easily appear on The Rerun Show: 2012 Edition. And how exactly are you going to feel when you tune in a decade from now to watch a cast of unknowns skewer that episode of According to Jim you chuckled at last week? Not half as bad as Jim Belushi's going to feel, we hope.

The makers of Scrubs probably won't have to lie awake at night dreading the day they turn on the TV and see Danny Bonaduce playing the part of Dr. Dorian in some kitschy reenactment. That's because Scrubs takes a wide detour from the well-trod territory that's been covered by sitcoms since the days of Ralph Malph telling Potsie to sit on it. Instead of the setup-joke formula that's lulled an entire nation into somnolence, the jokes on Scrubs can come from any direction -- a quick cutaway, a dream sequence, a visual gag. It's as if the show's cast and crew sat down and watched every sitcom on NBC that preceded it for the past half-decade, wrinkled their collective noses, and said, "Well, maybe we can try something different for a change."

Then again, you could say that of any of the half-dozen or so other shows that could have just as easily elbowed Scrubs aside to claim the Best Half-Hour prize. The shows that got our attention this year didn't feature a laugh-track and weren't filmed within a country mile of a live studio audience. Instead, they went their own direction. The Bernie Mac Show took a fairly familiar premise -- carefree man takes in his sister's three adorable children only to discover they sass back -- and infused it with a brand new point of view. The Job managed to generate big laughs out of the kind of material -- self-destructive, burnt-out cops -- that Steven Bochco's been mining for drama Emmys since the '80s. Speaking of Emmys, don't let the stubbornly idiotic refusal of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences to recognize Futurama and The Simpsons among the best comedy series fool you into thinking that these two animated offerings aren't better than 90 percent of the programming starring carbon-based lifeforms. Good Eats isn't a comedy series, but then again, it's nothing like any cooking show we've ever come across, either, and that hasn't stopped host Alton Brown from teaching us a really good way to make pot roast. And while Malcolm in the Middle may not have been as sharp this year as in previous seasons -- because, really, isn't it time for "Hour-Long Post-Super Bowl Special" to take its rightful place among "Brand New Baby," "Annual Clip Show" and "Ted McGinley Joins Cast" as one of the Four Horseman of TV Series Apocalypse? -- it still delivers the goods more often than not.

So, given the formidable level of competition, what makes Scrubs stand out from the half-hour crowd? It's the show's ability to speed down the ol' absurdist highway without an unplanned detour to the corner of Hollow Laughter and Forced Hilarity, where so many sitcoms, sketch comedy shows and prop comics have decided to pull over and stay awhile. Scrubs isn't like that. It's not afraid to delve into the silly, whether it's repeated Jimmie Walker cameos or breaking out into a "West Side Story"-style dance number to illustrate the rivalry between surgical and medical interns. But the show's producers and writers don't forget we're tuning in week after week because of the characters, so things never got lost in a McBealesque haze of gimmickry.

Besides, name another show in which a cappella renditions of both Poison's "Talk Dirty to Me" and the theme song from "Underdog" figured prominently into storylines, and we'll gladly split the Best Half-Hour Show trophy in two. Until that time, Scrubs takes the prize.

There's also the not-at-all small matter of having John C. McGinley in your cast.

McGinley plays Dr. Perry Cox, the mentor to Zach Braff's Dr. Dorian. As played by McGinley, Cox is so good at his chosen occupation and so burned out on the petty politics, mindless bureaucracy and inevitable mortality rate of modern medicine that he no longer cares who he offends. He's dismissive of underlings, insolent to authority and intolerant of anything other than perfect compliance from his patients. He says mean, awful, unpleasant things -- the sort of stuff that, if uttered in real life, either earns you a punch in the nose or a modest following on particularly snarky Web sites.

Naturally, he's a big favorite around here. So much so that we think he's the Best Actor in a Half-Hour series.

Chalk up a fair chunk of Dr. Cox's appeal to good writing, and, if there's any justice in the world, McGinley is keeping the "Scrubs" writing staff well stocked in the food, beverage, or smoking paraphernalia of their choice as thanks for thinking up such delightfully nasty things for him to say. But McGinley's more than just a warm body who happened to luck into a well-written role -- in the hands of a lesser actor, Dr. Cox is just another ill-tempered sourpuss. After all, that grumpy Dr. Becker is always running off at the mouth about something, but you won't hear us saying anything nice about the thespian prowess of Ted Danson. Not without a court order, anyway.

So, obviously, there's something about John McGinley that makes him an actor worth watching. Maybe it's because up until this point in his career, he's mostly been a mainstay in Oliver Stone movies, and we're just relieved to see the talented actor in a project that isn't about a cabal of evil, white businessmen plotting to corrupt southeast Asia or the National Football League or that nice Martin Sheen's airline. Maybe it's the way he clearly delights in his part, savoring especially vicious tirades against his inferiors the way an oenophile swirls around a good merlot. Or maybe it's the quieter moments, the scenes when McGinley gives us a peek at the man behind the monster, like when he sits silently and throws back a belt of scotch at the end of one episode to fight off the gnawing realization that there's no guarantee tomorrow won't be just as lousy as today. A lot of actors can do the Charismatic Jerk part -- McGinley certainly has proven he's exceptional at it. But that's not the only club in his bag, either.

Whatever the reason, the result is the same -- McGinley makes Scrubs a better show because he's in it. Yes, the writing is top drawer. Absolutely, the rest of the cast is first rate -- we're particularly fond of Sarah Chalke, Ken Jenkins and Judy Reyes. But remove John McGinley from the picture, and it's a less complete show. Still very good, certainly, but maybe not as interesting. And you can't really ask an actor to bring much more to the party than that.

But the ultimate testament to what McGinley and Scrubs have accomplished this season comes from none other than NBC. So obvious was the top-to-bottom quality of Scrubs that it managed to overcome the Peacock Network's gravitational attraction to Suck; this fall, Scrubs will follow Friends on Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. Forget the solid writing, the good performances, even John McGinley's contributions -- if it means not having to endure another Inside Schwartz-like disaster this fall, Scrubs has earned every last laurel we could toss in its direction.

Additional contributions to this article by: Philip Michaels.


TeeVee - About Us - Archive - Where We Are Now

Got a comment? Mail us at teevee@teevee.org.

* * *