The Current TV Landscape (The Office, Scrubs, and the Ghost of Arrested Development) – Part 3

Part 3 – Scrubs

Keeping the TV theme: a long time ago, I predicted that the Taylor guy would get super far on American Idol, but “America” would never vote for him when he’d be against a pretty girl….well, I haven’t watched since then, but I have it on in the background, and they haven’t announced a winner yet tonight (it’s 9:44 at the moment)…..let’s see if I was right.Uhh..I never said that.

MEGA-REVIEW! (forewarning, it looks like our corner of the internet will be TV-centric for the next while. For those that skim our reviews so that they can say “of course I still read the website,” you’ve got a whole bunch of skimming coming up…)

I’ve realized that I haven’t really discussed “the current TV landscape” in the first two reviews in this series; instead, I’ve just looked through a microscope at individual shows. So, let’s talk a bit about the “current TV landscape.” First and foremost, the fact that I call out only three shows while referring to that “landscape” doesn’t mean there aren’t necessarily other notable shows to be included. Of course I greatly enjoy the three shows listed in the title, but there are some (I’d hesitate to say “plenty”) of shows that I catch either sporadically (House ” probably the best pure “formula show” on TV ” I’m not judging, the show practically addresses the fact that it’s all formula) or never (Scrubs ” before I started watching it ” I guess that doesn’t count). A most notable absentee from this list is LOST (their caps, not mine). I’ll let Nate defend it, then belittle both it and him in the comments.

The three shows I’ve focused on are all critical favorites, but suffer a bit (or a lot) in terms of popular appeal. Arrested Development was canceled/not renewed because of low viewership, The Office gets around 8 million viewers each week (American Idol gets in the mid 20 million), and Scrubs hovers at that same 7-8 million mark, low enough for the show to have been considered “on the bubble” until just a few weeks before the networks announced their 2006-2007 lineups last week. You can’t draw the most profound conclusions from the viewership numbers alone, but in the most general of terms (“single camera,” no laugh-track sitcoms), there’s probably sizable overlap among the viewer groups. (Arrested Development sort of attracted the “martyr fan” ” fans that secretly wanted the network to cancel it so they could say how stupid everyone in America is. The Office gets the hipsters ” notice all the iPod commercials. And Scrubs probably gets the most women of the three, what with the “emotional moment” on/off switch that gets flipped around minute 25 of each broadcast ” not necessarily a bad thing; more about that later). I guess this should’ve been included in The Office review, but The Office won’t last more than four or so seasons; Steve Carell is a movie-caliber star, and considering the ratings the show gets, he won’t be able to get a Seinfeldian movie-caliber paycheck for his work on the show, and just as importantly, being attached to a 22 episode TV show for ¾ of the year doesn’t leave much time for movies. I doubt his leaving (and the end of the show’s run) would end up being an ugly sort of situation considering the ratings and also considering that they ended the second season by moving the ever-present conflict between Jim and Pam (well, it’s not a conflict, per se) in the direction of conclusion.

scrubs
Old Man teeth scare me.

The significance of the three shows is that they don’t exist in that same world in which other TV shows exist. Supposedly the Simpsons was the first show to do it, and like the Simpsons, these three shows exist somewhere between the real world and the “TV world.” Stay with me here. In the most obvious sense, around season 6 or 7, The Simpsons started to make jokes that existed only because it was a TV show, making fun of stereotypical TV camera moves, TV archetypes, and so on (ahh, metahumor). Heck, part of the dynamic of The Office is that the characters know they’re on a show. Arrested Development avoided the cheeky, “it’s funny because we’re on TV” types of jokes which are currently ruining Family Guy (and to be fair, The Office doesn’t point it out more than necessary, and Scrubs walks the razor thin line between self-awareness and self-consciousness quite well.

On the three shows I’ve written up, characters watch TV, and talk about things that “real people” would talk about: last night’s episode of such-and-such, a CD, etc”.in other words, pop culture without it being just product placement. The Simpsons did it first (supposedly”I think Seinfeld probably pushed the concept farther), Family Guy now exists solely because of it, and these shows use it to be better. The characters on The OC namedrop “indie” (the genre) bands, and I do know the creator is a fan of the music, but it’s not the way people talk about it. (Zach Braff ” as positive as my impression of Garden State is, Natalie Portman’s characters “thing” with The Shins is presented like it would be on The OC.) And it’s not just what they’re talking about, but how they’re talking about it. Like real people. Now, for Scrubs, one might say “but that’s too wacky, this that and the other thing,” but considering that I’ve encouraged someone who was in front of a crowd to show off “the bullets” because the people needed to know what “the guns” shot, it’s not really all that out there. Other popular shows have “TV” dialog. People on The West Wing and Gilmore Girls speak entirely too perfectly, the characters on Will & Grace were too “fast” with thinking of jokes, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s characters spoke like comic book characters (no, that’s not and will never be a good thing), the only impression I get from Hugh Laurie on House is that I really need a writer, and even successful traditional sitcoms showcase characters (not actors””I’m talking about the world within the show) who seemingly wakeup with outlines of what will happen in their day and what potential setup lines will be tossed up to them in conversation. I don’t hold that against those shows (sort of ” with Arrested Development, I realized shows didn’t need to exist in “TV world”). Is this because I want to relate to the characters, a concept I derided in the first of this series? I don’t know; I guess I’d just rather not have my media completely detached from reality (and yet I watch professional wrestling”regularly). Free Ride attempted to take the “talk like real people” to an extreme, featuring almost wholly improvised dialog, but the only thing that it got was canceled and decidedly unreal (hold on tight as I invent yet another word) “improvspeak,” where the actors (not the characters) forget that there are actual pauses in conversation, and just babble like crazy, each line louder than the previous as they try to “play” off of each other. I hate to allude to wrestling, and as much as he’s one of my favorites because of his legendary microphone work, but The Rock suffers from acute improvspeak when he makes his random appearances at WWE broadcasts, saying nothing, but taking a whole lot of time to say it.

You’ll notice I’m completely glossing over the Laws & Orderseses, CSI’s, and other crime shows as well as ER, Grey’s Anatomy, and their accompanying medical-related programs (I’m not sure I’d include Scrubs in there). I’ll act like I’m not lumping all those shows into one giant “current TV landscape” category, but I just did. These shows are all practically interchangeable. Writers make medical or crime shows because plots are Easy with a capitol E. Doctors and people in the field of justice (ha!) potentially lead interesting lives just because of their jobs. Interesting things will happen to them before the writers even decide which one will be the divorced loner, the bright-eyed, naïve beginner, the jaded veteran, and the sex-crazed comic relief. People get out of jail and go after the cop that put them in there, doctors are exposed to unknown pathogens, you name it. The plots are Easy. It’s just about this simple: men like watching bad guys get their butts kicked by police officers, women like watching good, but sick people get cured by attractive doctors. What makes the show compelling (or not) is how well the writers handle the 20% of the story that doesn’t have to do with the characters’ occupations. Grey’s Anatomy is a medical show because the writers needed somewhere to place a female-centric love mess, and suburbia had already been taken. House stays pretty close to the medical-centric thing, but most fans’ favorite episodes involve big revelations about the main character. These shows are all fine, but as complicated as the plots might be, there’s really not much to them at the end of the day. They’re doctors, nurses, police officers, prosecutors, and that’s about it. The better shows, NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life on the Street, the first seasons of ER raised the bar, and there are still “better” examples of this genre (the hospital/crime genre) on the air, but in the end, it’s all about how successfully the writers twist the formula. Look at Nip/Tuck: it combines the “helping people” of the hospital shows with the “hurting people” of the crime shows; that math would make it practically perfect. In fact, come to think of it, I guess one could consider CSI and its children and imitators to mix crime-solving with medical know-how. Darn you Jerry Bruckheimer, ripping off my half-invented idea!

All this, and I still haven’t talked about Scrubs. Well, I warned you at the beginning there’d be a sidetrack.

I fell into Scrubs similarly to how I fell into The Office. No less than three people had recommended the show to me since its debut in 2001 because it seemed like the “wacky” sort of thing I’d like (well, the USA Today critic didn’t tell me personally that it’d be the type of show I like, but close enough), and each time, I watched the show (I even watched it twice for one of them), I just didn’t get anything out of it. It was a bit too “out there,” and I didn’t like the ambitious emotional montage with navel-gazing that seemingly ended each episode. The most recent of recommenders was friend of the Bookshelf and noted ginger ale enthusiast Josh Calloway. I include that if only because he likes to see his name in print”spelled incorrectly. We happened to be in a social setting and a group of us watched it the next time it was on, but I still wasn’t “getting” the appeal. I saw why and how other people would like it, but it didn’t sit well with me. Fast-forward about two weeks and I happened to be flipping on a Tuesday night and I landed on Scrubs and decided to give it another try. It was pure awesome. I wish I remember which episode it was, but suddenly it all just fit together and became “appointment TV.” Needless to say, bittorrent and a lot of free time later, I’ve seen all of them.

It’s really like a live action version of Family Guy. Of course fans from both camps would probably be offended by that comparison, but they both are very close to pop culture and showcase usually successful throw-away gags. Of course, Family Guy relies on them to the point of failure while Scrubs merely uses them to embellish the existing, coherent story (and yes, I believed this before South Park went after Family Guy under almost that exact same reasoning).

The casting is perfect; I feel bad for all of the actors as, even including previous work, they are the characters as far as I’m concerned. I saw an ad for a movie (Hoot, maybe) featuring Janitor (who cares what the actor’s name is), and all I could think was: Man, I hope he gives JD a hard time in that movie. Really, for the younger actors, it’s probably all downhill after Scrubs is done, and for the older actors, this is the “sweet role” that you’ve worked for mostly resolved, and ends with JD narrating over a montage and appropriately moody music. But I’m not complaining. The show is consistently hilarious, inventive in its approach to “the sitcom,” and has created likable, interesting characters out of normal TV archetypes. It’s not above its genre; it’s just at the top of it. All that, and that wasn’t even a “negative.”

I’ll nitpick: as much as Dr. Cox is the typical “frazzled veteran,” he’s one of the most entertaining characters on a show filled with them. After the first two seasons established him as 90% evil, 10% heart of gold, he was presented as someone who just plain old wouldn’t have any friends. Then, wham, in season 3, they show him and Carla having “friend moments.” Being that they established that he had a thing for her in the past, that’s completely ignored; she just laughs at what he says, and not in a flirty way either. I guess the writers got tired of all the teenaged girls writing angry letters because “Dr. Cox harasses JD in every episode! Gawd!” and needed a different wall for the character to talk at. In light of the “it’s still a sitcom at the end of the day” argument, Turk and Carla’s relationship, being the most lasting and normal-ish of the relationships on the show is leaned on to create most of the typical sitcom stories. The writers can’t base a normal story on Cox and Jordan; it’s just not believable that they’d have relatable “couple-problems.” They’ve relied on every stage of Turk and Carla’s relationship for plots, if not longer reaching story-lines (in this order): flirting problems, dating problems, long-term relationship problems, engagement problems, engaged problems, wedding problems, marriage problems, conception problems, pregnancy problems and soon, baby problems.

Ahh, well, I think that’s the negative off my chest. It’s frustrating to like something so much but find it so much easier to complain about. Considering that the section of this review that actually deals with the show is taken up more by these complaints, I feel like I’m giving it the short end of the stick by having a rather brief “overwhelmingly positive” section. So here goes.

Scrubs is significant not because it has great moments, but because it has perfect moments. Times when you watch and just say “wow.” Watch the episode, “My Screw Up” from season 3, and realize how perfect the moment where Dr. Cox admits his brother-in-law is dead on the way to his funeral and wonder how poorly almost any other show would handle it. I don’t mean to turn it this into a bulleted list of those moments, but I’d be doing future viewers a disservice to not mention how JD’s break-up with Kylie was edited together, every scene with Tara Reid, most anything with Todd, “are you sure you don’t have a dead cat in there?,” Turk’s dancing, Elliot’s (a girl) latent bi-curiousness, Dr. Acula, Janitor and Dr. Cox bonding over a shared hatred of JD, most of Michael J. Fox’s two episodes, Dr. Cox’s illogical hatred of Hugh Jackman and on and on.

Guest-casting, some sitcoms’ downfall, is used perfectly on Scrubs because the producers don’t focus on getting a “name” on the show, but getting actors that will create a (here’s that word again) perfect character. The most notable example of this is Tom Cavanaugh as Dan, JD’s (Zach Braff) brother. JD is all about quirks: conversational, physical, you name it. If this were a lesser show, someone like David Duchovny (nothing against the DD thank you very much) would simply mimic Zach Braff, “Hey, they’re brothers. I’ll just copy him.” But Tom Cavanaugh puts his own spin on it, simultaneously creating someone who’s obviously related to JD, but also an entirely different character. I’ll include a note here that John Ritter was equally amazing as JD’s down-on-his-luck, sort-of-estranged father, and for my own selfish reasons, I’ll say that it’s a real shame he died before appearing in more than just that one episode in the first season.

****½

Scrubs receives four-and-a-half stars due to the sheer quality of each and every episode. Casting, guest casting, all of the minor roles, most all of the writing, the attention to detail: it’s all perfect. The show has absolutely perfect moments, as I incompletely detailed above. But that’s why it also gets docked half a star; the show has those perfect moments, but there aren’t perfect episodes. Where Arrested Development had multiple perfect episodes, Scrubs has had five seasons and hasn’t done it yet. They will one day, but it will probably the last episode. There aren’t many seasons left for the show; aside from the fact that its ratings aren’t the best, January 2007 will mark the beginning of the sixth season. Seven or eight years is about the maximum for any TV show; the viewers have matured into a different age bracket, the writers “aren’t where they were” when they started, and actors begin to get antsy. Friends lasted to ten seasons, though 8 and 9 were considered the weakest seasons and pure cash is what kept the cast from leaving. And The Simpsons…well, let’s not even look at that one (but let’s remember that season 9 is the first one where the bad episodes outnumber the good). The next season of Scrubs will be a pretty “busy” one, with JD having decided he was looking to settle down (and probably becoming a father-to-be), Jordan is pregnant (again), and Turk and Carla are about to add “baby problems” to that list I made above. I’ll predict that Jordan and Dr. Cox’s pregnancy will end in a miscarriage, if only because they haven’t done that yet on the show, and the writers aren’t afraid to pull emotional punches (does everyone remember when they had JD and Elliot [that’s a girl] “finally” get together, only to have him universally decide it wouldn’t work not even two episodes later). With Arrested Development gone, that leaves The Office and Scrubs to stand for “the current TV landscape.” Steve Carell’s “brink-of-superstardom” position makes it so The Office will probably last two more seasons at most. In fact, assuming Scrubs gets to seven seasons, that brings it to a close at about the same time. But this is all negative stuff; these are the best shows on TV. TV shows are a lot like dogs; you get attached to them, and when everything’s good you forget that you’ll be around a lot longer than they will. It’s always sad to think of the end when everything’s still good.

4 Replies to “The Current TV Landscape (The Office, Scrubs, and the Ghost of Arrested Development) – Part 3”

  1. Hey Dan – Tell your parents that I said hello. I’m working in Korea now – applications eng at NI. What’s up with you? in PA?

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