What ‘Scrubs’ Can Teach Us About Storytelling and Humour

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 It handles issues like industry sexism and doctors performing outdated medical procedures and thus endangering their patients.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.

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‘The Bold Type’, Also Known as the Better Version of ‘The Devil Wears Prada’

The Bold Type is a dramedy revolving around women working at a popular magazine. Not something that’s immediately intriguing to me. But it’s awesome.

The premise is pretty similar to the movie The Devil Wears Prada, but while that involves an entire workplace filled with people that don’t like each other, a terrible boss, and a whole host of sexist tropes, in The Bold Type, women actually support each other instead of competing. The characters don’t all have the same goals or interests, but they support each other and learn from each other.

Jane Sloan is kind of everything to me, because she neither belittles the so-called “feminine interests” like fashion and makeup nor considers caring about those things an inherently empowering, feminist choice. She doesn’t believe ignoring politics is an option. She’s far from perfect – she has internalized misogyny to work through. She can be judgmental and insensitive. There are times when she behaves in a manner that, if she had a less understanding boss, could get her fired. But she gets called out when she makes errors. She was pointed out as being in the wrong for her behaviour in the entire debacle with Morgan Stanley, the stripper that used to work in finance, and she recognized that. She tries to not be a White Feminist™. She tries to listen.

There’s no Hollywood Homely nonsense here. She’s acknowledged as pretty without any comments of her not dressing well or being boring/ugly because she’s smart. This is the quintessential “chick flick” except it’s not a romantic comedy, it’s a workplace comedy that’s primarily about friendship. Even when part of Jane’s storyline involves sex, it has much more to do with who she is and exploring her character than it does with any guy. Pinstripe could be literally anyone, and it wouldn’t matter. She loves where she works, and is hugely grateful for the job and what she learned, but has bigger goals than writing about butt facials. That’s okay – more than okay, that’s great.

Sutton and Kat are also individual characters beyond just there to support Jane, the lead. Sutton is terrified of failure and not having a safety net. She went to business school, even though she didn’t love it, because it’s practical and pays the bills. But she could only do that for so long before realizing, no, she doesn’t want to keep doing that for the rest of her life. Kat has massive amounts of confidence when it comes to work, but is very confused and uncertain about her sexuality, as well as unsure whether or not she’s ready to make any kind of big decision in regards to her personal life.

If the most important relationship in the show is between the Jane, Kat, and Sutton, and the second is the one between Jane and Jacqueline, the third – and first romantic – has to be Kat and Adena’s. Pinstripe guy isn’t really a character in his own right so much as a plot device to develop Jane’s. As refreshing as that is in a world where so many female characters are used like that, it doesn’t do much for building a relationship that’s actually a pillar of the show. The same holds true for Richard – he’s slightly more developed as a character than Jane’s love interest, who I’ve been referring to as Pinstripe guy not just because that’s his in-show nickname but because I honestly don’t remember his name, but not that much.

Adena is an actual character, with her own goals, flaws, and life, which results in the most important important romantic relationship being between two women of colour. As much as I enjoy depictions of fictional interracial relationships with no white people, I often worry that they exist for the sake of a token minority couple. Not the case here at all.

I’ve heard some complaints about the show not handling race well, because while characters of colour exist, there’s never any disconnect between said characters and their white friends/coworkers or exploration of the impact of race on job opportunities and pay. While that’s a fair criticism, I don’t personally agree, because I like escapist works. I don’t want everything involving people of colour to be grounded in reality. I want escapism and lighthearted fun to not be limited to white people.

The Bold Type is fun. It’s a comforting, low-stress, low-stakes show that you can enjoy with no worries. I don’t like the phrase “chick flick”. It’s largely synonymous with “romantic comedy”, or “about women” and while I don’t really have anything against romcoms, and I love shows about women, I think it’s gross to try to define one genre as the interests of an entire gender. It’s nondescriptive nonsense, but The Bold Type would certainly be considered one, and that does a disservice to the show.

The label “chick flick” often turns people away from a work, even if it’s something they would enjoy, and that’s because of the generic romcom in the US: white, straight, predictable, and, to varying degrees, sexist. But there are other chick flicks that are pretty great – Legally Blonde, Miss Congeniality, Bend It Like Beckham, Thelma and Louise, this. Movies and shows about women that, regardless of whether or not they also include a romantic subplot, focus heavily on the lead character’s friendships with other women.

The main characters on The Bold Type are almost exclusively women. They’re different people without being stereotypes or caricatures, and have complex relationships with each other. It was clearly written for women in mind – and largely by women – and it’s fantastic. Go watch it.

5 Shows That Need More Love

1. Better Off Ted

This is just hilarious – a man with a conscience works for a cartoonishly evil corporation. It’s a typical sitcom with a quirky cast, but what’s great is that it recognizes the comedic sociopathy that’s often relied upon in the genre and instead of glossing over how creepy it is, leans into it for comedy.

All the hard work, late nights, and no rest have paid off. We’ve cured sleepessness! And demonstrated irony.

better off ted

 

2. Orphan Black

orphan black poster

So it had a devoted fanbase that was sufficiently large that it got to complete the narrative arc without getting cancelled. Still doesn’t mean it gets as much love as it should.

Admittedly, part of the reason I love this show is Canadian pride, because it’s my little Canadian sci-fi drama that could. It made no attempts to disguise the fact that it’s Canadian. It’s more than just filmed in Canada – it’s set there. For once, Toronto isn’t the stand in city. Canadian shows usually don’t get much traction in the U.S. This one isn’t really that much of an exception, because viewership was pretty low throughout all five seasons, but it is a head and shoulders above the rest in quality.

It’s one of my favourite shows, but even I won’t argue that its plot or writing alone is worth it. No, what pushes it over the edge to must see territory is the combined work of its absolutely brilliant lead actress, Tatiana Maslany; the excellent costume and makeup departments; and a genius visual effects team that do such a great job, you forget it’s just one actress playing half the lead roles.

3. The Gifted

the gifted poster

Look, I know I talk about how much The Gifted a ridiculous amount – both in regards to what I like about it and what I don’t – and it naturally gets some amount of attention just by virtue of being a superhero property, but its ratings aren’t great, and as such, I think I can stick it on this list.

It’s a lot like Gotham – just as Gotham started off as a Batman show without Batman, The Gifted is an X-Men show without the X-Men. Sure, it’s more grounded than Gotham, and closer to a regular drama than a black comedy, but the principle is the same. People didn’t think Gotham would work, but it did, carving its own place by completely throwing away whichever parts of canon it didn’t feel like using. The Gifted is doing just that, and it’s beautiful to watch.

4. White Teeth

You know those books you read in high school that are good but you somehow don’t much like, probably because you’re reading them in high school? Zadie Smith’s White Teeth was one of those for me. I don’t even remember which year I read it – junior, maybe? The whole book was a blur. I didn’t remember any of it, only being kind of bored while reading, and a little confused because there were a whole lot of characters and it was hard to keep them straight. But I recently found my copy while doing some cleaning, and whoa. A whole lot happened, and it was a way better read than I remembered.

The adaptation was a miniseries, not a full length one, but it was surprisingly excellent. It’s funny and moving in turn, with lots of great performances – and even if it’s not for you, it’s only a four hour commitment.

5. The Good Place

This is my favourite sitcom, bar none. Mike Schur co-created Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and while I like those well enough, The Good Place is in its own league.

the good place

Ethical dilemmas? All kinds of comedy? Characters with a wide range of strengths and flaws? The Good Place has it all! It’s gentle to its characters with next to no mean-spirited  jokes at any single character’s expense; there are times when it’s so well plotted, it feels like a good drama, and not a sitcom; the characters’ struggles, flaws, and insecurities are all taken seriously and it doesn’t make the show any less funny. What’s not to love?

 

‘When We First Met’: A Mediocre Comedy That So Easily Could Have Been Terrible

I wasn’t expecting much when I put on When We First Met the other night. It was on Netflix, and I wasn’t in the mood to commit to watching a full series. It managed to be just good enough that I was both pleasantly surprised at how it averted and deconstructed some of the issues a lot of rom coms face and disappointed at how it reverted to old cliches at the end.

The premise: a magic photo booth takes the lead character back in time to relive the day he met the friend he’s in love with. It’s a skeevy thought – a guy that’s so fixated on this girl that’s never been interested in him feels so  entitled to have her, he’s willing to completely change his life, not because he has regrets that he wants to fix, but because he thinks changing his choices will make the girl fall for him. To the movie’s credit, it didn’t rely on stripping away the girl’s autonomy, nor on vilifying any of the other characters. That wasn’t the happy ending.

The first time he went back, he used his three years of knowledge to say everything he thought she’d want to hear. It was manipulative and creepy and downright invasive, and she rightfully called him out on being a weirdo stalker. Her roommate beat him up with a plant. Her fiancé tackled him. That scene stood out in the movie – it was actually pretty funny. Sadly, he didn’t learn the lesson he should have – that he should stop being an obsessed creep and be thankful for the friendship he wouldn’t have if she knew how much of an obsessed creep he was – and came to the conclusion that the problem wasn’t that he was being creepy, but that he hadn’t been sneaky enough about his creepiness.

At the end, after a few more missteps, he went back one more time to redo the night by doing what he’d done the first time, but there was something that made me uncomfortable about why he did it. It would have been one thing had he done it because he realized that he didn’t have the right to keep screwing with the lives of people that are supposed to be his friends. But he did it because he wanted to do the same thing again, just with a different end goal – this time, he wanted a chance with the roommate.

By the end, it just felt pointless. It wasn’t good, but neither was it particularly bad. It was just an hour and a half of nothingness that I could forget I even watched. It’s not something I have any interesting or intelligent critique to make about why it’s good or bad, because it just was. The director does have the capacity for genuinely funny comedies – he made West Bank Story, which I found hilarious in a crossing the line twice kind of way, even if I felt bad for laughing. Even When We First Met had its moments, what with the using a plant as a weapon thing. But it felt overly long, and the sweet/funny bits were matched by a creepiness that, if much better than it could have been, was definitely present, resulting in my overall impression being: meh.

The Masterful Use Of Black Comedy In ‘Gotham’

Gotham has had a lot of high points and low points. I remember being hugely excited by the trailer and announcement. It was a great trailer – the story of how Gotham became Gotham, how it came to be a place that needs the Batman. I was watching it again the other day, and even now, three years later, knowing what the show became, I still love it.

They sold Gotham as a crime drama. It was dark, it was intense, it was exciting. David Mazouz looked, even then, as the perfect casting for a young Bruce. What they sold us isn’t what we got at all.

adore young Bruce and Selina. I think they’re some of the best parts of the show, and that they were fantastic casting choices. But as much as I love them, as much as I’ve always enjoyed their scenes, I have to also acknowledge that they kind of took over the show from the very beginning. The entire premise of the show was Gotham before Batman. And I was here for that in principle, but the point they picked as the start of darkness was the murder of the Waynes. By doing that, they had to involve Bruce, and whoever cast him did such a good job, it would have been an enormous waste to not use him in other plots.

The best way to actually do the Gotham before Batman and the villains would have probably been to focus on the crime families and how they created a world where masked vigilantes and themed supervillains roam the night, or maybe even Bruce’s parents. Maroni’s death way back in season one challenged that notion because he wasn’t supposed to die. He’s a staple of the Batman mythos, and he’s one of the few characters that has actually remained dead. (I think, it’s getting hard to keep track.) That death was the beginning of Gotham finding its footing as its own show, of the writers deciding that they didn’t care about the generally accepted canon.

Gotham took a while to figure out what it wanted to be. I remember loving the pilot, but being a bit let down by the next couple of episodes, because those were the days when it was a cop show, the days when it was trying to be the gritty drama the audience signed on to watch. Now? The show has almost moved past that initial question of what kind of city needs Batman, but I think it  handled the concept very well, just in probably a very different way than the audience initially expected – they crafted a world so absurdly dark that someone dressing up as a bat to go fight crime dooesn’t sound weird at all. In fact, it’s probably the least weird thing that’s happened. It’s glorious.

I used to be confused at how any of the timeline made sense – almost all the villains were full grown adults at the beginning while Bruce was still a child. What, was he going to be fighting senior citizens when he became Batman? By the time Dick becomes Nightwing in this universe, the villains should all be in retirement homes! But once I let that go, and stopped trying to apply logic to it, it became amazing, because Gotham is at its best when it’s so absurdly dark it becomes hilarious. It became a thousand times better once it gave up on plot in favour of the absurd. Like the ridiculousness of Oswald and Ed’s relationship. Nothing is funnier to me than the newfound Penguin and Riddler animosity. Oswald killed Ed’s girlfriend. Ed shoots Oswald. Oswald retaliates by freezing him and making him the centrepiece in his nightclub. Ed sends random people to rap terrible riddles at Oswald. Somewhere in there, the two of them bickered while locked up in a cage together.

Gotham is one of those rare, beautiful works that I can just enjoy. It’s kinda dumb and over the top. There are story choices that I don’t necessarily enjoy. There are characters that I’m not fond of. But it’s silly and enjoyable, while at the same time having some devastatingly powerful scenes. It’s beautiful nonsense that can’t be viewed logically. At one pooint, a mobster kills the former mayor with a rocket launcher. As this post puts it:

After a rocky first season, Gotham has become more entertaining by its sheer audacity and silliness, as well as its refusal to give a damn about Bat-canon. the stories have seemed random, characters and plot are introduced and then abandoned at a dizzying rates, anything can happen and anything can un-happen.

I don’t think the show handles women well. Partially because of how many of them die, but more due to the employment of sexist tropes. Tabitha and Ivy are especially poorly handled. Tabitha barely got to do anything until Selina, who apparently needs mentors now, teamed up with her. They replaced the original Ivy actress so that they could sexualize her, except her mind was still clearly that of a little girl. What was the point? It was disgusting. If they really felt the need to employ her “seductive personality from the comics” so badly, why couldn’t they just introduce Ivy Pepper’s older cousin, Pamela Isley? That would solve two problems at once!

I love Gotham and its black comedy. I grin like an idiot whenever I watch a new episode. It is so close to being fantastic, it just needs to treat its female characters better. As it is, they’ve mastered dark, absurdist humour and crafted a beautifully unique and watchable show.