Remember Scrubs? That hospital show that ran for eight seasons? (I know. Don’t say it.) I loved that show. It was ridiculous and silly and it blended comedy and drama better than just about anything else I’ve ever seen, and the reason for that is how they let their moments breathe. The writers didn’t feel the need to immediately lighten the mood whenever they got serious. There were no hasty retreats away from the emotional topics.
The show is genuinely funny, in ways ranging from imagine spots to funny rants. It did genre and homage episodes long before Community built an entire show off of doing just that. It weaves humour within seriousness, or starts light, then gets more serious, but whichever way a given episode goes, the impact of a serious episode is never diminished by a misplaced joke at the end.
One of the characters that only showed up in one episode was Nick, a fellow intern and the golden boy. Smart, skilled, charming, all of that. And the episode was dedicated to breaking him down. Not in the kind of soap opera melodrama where there’s an endless parade of bad luck way, not in the “we have to get this guy out of the way so our lead character can be the best” way, but in the more understated, “life is hard and the medical field is brutal and sometimes there’s not going to be anything you can do to save that seven year old”. And that was the end of the episode – it didn’t end on a joke, it ended on Nick walking away from years of work and a job he was great at because he couldn’t keep going through that.
The episode that introduced Kevin Casey played his OCD for laughs, through gags like showing him needing to touch every object in a room when he entered or repeatedly signing his name, up until the very end of the episode, where we see him, hours after his last surgery, still scrubbing his hands raw. The other characters realize they can’t blame him for all their problems because he has more than his share of them and go home, leaving him alone, flicking the lights on and off all night.
Characters die or move away. The lead character is defined by how emotional he is and the intensity of his relationships with the people around him. It handles issues like industry sexism and doctors performing outdated medical procedures and thus endangering their patients. People have to try to figure out if a patient is genuinely in pain, or just trying to score drugs.
Even during the parts intended to be funny, Scrubs did something that I really wish more works did: made characters funny in different ways, rather than everyone just snarking at each other without much of a unique voice. Cox goes on long rants, JD has his imagine spots and weird thought process, and so on. They acknowledged it, too – it one episode, none of Carla’s jokes were landing, and Cox told her that everyone is funny in different ways in a long snarky rant:
The show had plenty of flaws. Some of the jokes have not aged well – there was a lot of homophobia and transphobia, as well as some very uncomfortable race comments – and the flanderization of characters got exhausting after a while. The female characters weren’t handled nearly as well as they should have been. But Scrubs deserves to be remembered, because it’s not only one of the goofiest shows out there, it’s one of the most profoundly emotional comedies you’ll find. It shows that there are no limits on the types of comedy you can use, so long as you’re sincere when you go serious. Characters can use humour to avoid the serious, but the work itself shouldn’t. Yes, Scrubs had its share of jokes that just aren’t funny, like most comedies. Yes, there were a couple seasons in there that felt tedious. And yes, some of it is just over the top goofy, including occasional jokes made during serious scenes. But if you look past those issues, you’ll find a show that manages to seamlessly blend comedy and drama in a way that few other shows have managed.