TeeVee Awards '03: Best Half-Hour Show
Think of the pilots you've seen. The Law & Order pilot, aired as the third episode of the series. The first Star Trek pilot, eventually edited into the wonderful two-part episode "The Menagerie." The All in the Family pilot with the Bunkers and their anniversary party. This is some of the best TV around.
Pilots are great fun, and what makes them fun is that they show television series as works in progress. In pilots, the characters aren't rounded and realistic; they've been painted with the wide roller, big and flat. They're not characters, they're caricatures. There's the Womanizer, the Snob, the Innocent. The Wacky Neighbor and the Weirdo. The Moron. No attempt is made to humanize these parts. They're just thrown together into some situation and allowed to make comedy. At this stage, too, the situation hasn't yet run out of locomotive power. In the pilot, we're just learning about the situation.
As the series ages this will no longer be the case. The situation will start to break down, necessitating all sorts of paraplegic attempts to leg it up one more comedy hill. The writers will succumb to the desire to be more "serious" and so they'll round out the characters and script the oft-maligned Very Special Episode, usually at odds with logic (Alex Keaton getting hooked on diet pills), humor (Edith Bunker getting raped), or both (Hawkeye Pierce boating on a lake filled with spare body parts). Even the most absurd comedy relief characters will have cumbrous flesh added to their bare humorous skeleton: Eventually we will see Cliff's mom, Wilson's face will be revealed, Remington Steele's past will be unearthed. In every series they will have to catch the one-armed man.
But not at the pilot stage. That early, no one is even thinking about how they'll fill their entire first season, never mind the long downhill slide into Raven-Symoné Land.
Rare indeed is the series which can avoid this sad, sad fate. Most shows are content to diminish themselves. But some of the best refuse to compromise. The show's creators simply keep the show on its original track, never allowing the characters to "mature," never pushing to make the show's world realistic or believable, never once having the set builder put together a soapbox for the writers to stand on. Married... with Children. Malcolm in the Middle. Seinfeld. The Honeymooners.
To that illustrious list add Scrubs, at least as of the end of the 2002-2003 season, for which we are awarding Scrubs the Best Half-Hour Show Award.
Scrubs debuted as a sitcom in the Malcolm in the Middle mode: No laugh track, elaborate and pointless fantasy sequences, camera pans accompanied by a "whoosh" on the soundtrack. This style has been aped by a fair number of other, more pathetic series (Hidden Hills comes to mind), and even on the brilliant Malcolm it can be trying. And yet on Scrubs it works seemingly effortlessly. Somehow, the show's creators have managed, for two seasons, while using this difficult format, to perfectly balance pathos with comedy, to weave small moments of seriousness into a big humorous blanket, and to get us to care about the show's characters.
And we care despite the fact that not one of them has emerged as a true character. You would never mistake any one of the amazing roles on Scrubs for a real person. Every one of them is cardboard. No real person on Earth, at any time, has ever behaved like any of the characters on this show.
Did we say "despite the fact"? Wrong. It's because of this that we care about them. Because each one is a facet of ourselves, enlarged and magnified and sent out walking around in the world.
J.D., as played by Zach Braff, is the person most of us wish we were. He's sincere and hard-working. He's funny. He's insecure, but when he really needs to step up, he does. And he gets all the babes. Braff manages to fall into this role so totally, we're still surprised to see his name in the credits: In between shows, we forget his name isn't J.D. Dorian.
Sarah Chalke makes us forget her stint on Roseanne by hamming it up as Elliot, the flip side to J.D. She's really insecure, but shockingly competent when it matters. And she gets all the studs, including Ricky Shroeder. Chalke shows incredible comedic timing, a fantastic gift for physical comedy, and a willingness to strip down to her underwear on the flimsiest of premises. And she's a hottie! Who doesn't, in some sense, feel that there's an Elliot Reed inside them? Enough cardio and diet pills and we could all be Dr. Reed!
Then we have J.D. and Elliot's parallels, Turk and Carla. Donald Faison takes Turk and turns him into a brilliant combination of boyish, immature behavior and the demanding competence of a surgeon. Faison makes us believe that Turk can manage to be one of the most childish people in the room and yet be smart enough and strong enough to succeed in one of the most difficult of professions. And Judy Reyes perfectly captures Carla as a strong, beautiful woman who doesn't always feel strong or beautiful, working in the often overlooked but challenging field of nursing.
If the four main characters of Scrubs are our good sides, the people we like to think we are, then the various supporting players are the people we wish we could be but aren't. Ken Jenkins' Dr. Kelso is the driver's seat sneer we'd love to turn on the little people who get in our way every day; Neil Flynn's nameless janitor is all rampaging id, the kind of torment we wish on all our evil co-workers and stupid relations. The Todd, played with an admirable lack of protective ego by Robert Maschio, is the narcissistic pig in all of us; he literally wallows in his own waste and is utterly ignorant of how repulsive he is, and that makes him irresistably loveable. Don't we all want to be accepted despite how gross we can be? And latecomer Christa Miller takes her role as Jordan to brilliant new depths of sheer, castrating, womanly evil in every episode, playing the powerful nasty bitch every woman at some point dreams of being.
The remaining background characters are so rarely seen and so sketchy they're not even done in pencil, they're done on one of those magnetic mustache tablets, but they each illuminate a corner of ourselves: Nervous Guy, perpetually frozen in fear; Nurse Laverne, gossip and holy roller; and Ted the lawyer, a singing, slouching, job- and self-hating disaster, always on the brink of some kind of breakdown.
But we missed one character, didn't we? Yes we did.
Finally, there's the center of the show. The man around whom every episode eventually revolves. A character so crazy his shrink could only be played by Eric Bogosian. Dr. Perry Cox as played by John McGinley.
Maybe someone with more experience with McGinley's vast filmography could have forseen what he'd do with the part of Dr. Cox, but for us, we've always seen him as the Asshole. Need an Asshole? Hire John McGinley. Need someone to make the good guy look good? Hire McGinley. Need some wiseass to get his comeuppance? McGinley. Need someone who's a dead ringer for Norman Osborn? McGinley's your man, but you hired Willem Dafoe instead, you idiot.
John McGinley wears the character of Dr. Cox so perfectly, though, that we've forgotten about all his previous roles. Perry Cox was made for McGinley's screen persona: The Asshole with a Heart of Gold.
As McGinley plays him, Dr. Cox is the guy we'd all like to be coupled with the guy who does all the terrible things we wish we could -- and he gets away with it. He says things we only want to say, he says them better than we ever could, and he is so insufferably cool he makes the Fonz look like the Beav. He tosses off one-liners and then follows them up with whole huge dense paragraphs of taunting: ridiculing his superiors, his inferiors, his peers, his lovers, anyone within earshot. And then he turns around and does or says just the right thing and we love him. We root for him. His happiness, as small and fleeting as it is when he finds it, is our happiness. And his defeats are our defeats. But he can never truly be totally defeated because he is simply too smart, too good at what he does, and too indispensible.
Face it: We all want to be Dr. Cox when we grow up.
Those, then, are the characters, the caricatures, that the creative team of Scrubs has brought together to tell their stories. Not one of them is realistic. When you add in the usual sitcom plots (J.D.'s dad was played by John Ritter, fer cryin' out loud) and the wild fantasy sequences (sometimes it seems those at the helm are less interested in their own show than in getting work for career-free former stars like Fred "Rerun" Berry, Jimmy "Dyn-o-mite" Walker, and Colin "Man at Work" Hay), when all of that is added in, the show looks as two-dimensional as a postcard.
And after two years the show has stayed the course. No one has matured, no one has developed, nothing has been opened up or rounded out.
But the show's not two-dimensional. It looks like it should be, but it's not. By pulling out our best and worst selves and having them bump into each other each week, Scrubs is funny, and it's weird, and it's also moving. It reaches some moments of truth untouched by shows which try harder and more seriously. It's a never-ending pilot episode, forever showing us possibilities, always teetering on the edge of potential but never succumbing to the urge to actually become.
For that, it deserves TeeVee's Best Half-Hour Show Award.
Additional contributions to this article by: Chris Rywalt.
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