Scrubs: Season 1 Review
Dr. John "JD" Dorian (Zach Braff) is a medical intern at the Sacred Heart hospital. He and fellow rookies Elliot Reed (Sarah Chalke) and Chris Turk (Donald Faison) arrive on their first day and immediately find themselves in the thick of things, dealing with all manner of bizarre patients and having to cope with the eccentric and jaded senior staff, primarily Dr. Bob Kelso (Ken Jenkins), the hot-tempered head of medicine, Dr. Perry Cox (John C. McGinley), the aggressive chief resident, and Carla (Judy Reyes), the no-nonsense senior nurse. Add in an unnamed Janitor (Neil Flynn) who has it in for JD, and you pretty much have a complete picture of the series. From there, anything goes in this offbeat and often surprising piece of comedy.
Scrubs, unlike most US television series, is difficult to pigeon-hole. Most American comedies either go down the "wacky" route, relying heavily on slapstick gags, or conform to the more conventional "sitcom" model, popularized by shows like Friends, which lean heavily towards verbal humour. It is no secret that I prefer the former type to the latter, going so far as to despise Friends, arguably one of the most popular comedy series of all time. For me, the fact that the jokes generally revolve around the writers trying to prove how clever they are is a huge turn-off, as it often results in a supposedly witty one-liner being forced out of the mouth of a character who would never actually say such a thing. I'm also one of those people who detests laugh tracks: nothing is worse, in my opinion, than the aural equivalent of a "laugh now" message being displayed after a joke that requires prompting to elicit any kind of audience response. Scrubs is not like these shows. While it is true that it shares many of the elements normally associated with sitcoms (and indeed creator Bill Lawrence was a one-time Friends script monkey), it combines the comedy elements with genuine drama and solid characterisation, to the extent that the jokes support the storylines rather than the other way round.
In terms of its look, Scrubs owes a lot more to US hospital dramas like ER than to sitcoms. Shot in an actual hospital rather than a studio set, there is a sense of realism to it that would not have been possible in any other environment. Additionally, unlike most comedies, it is filmed using a single camera rather than going down the traditional sitcom method, where as many as four cameras can be placed around the set in the hope of capturing most of the action, with the final episode consisting of an amalgamation of various different reels. The single-camera format allows for much more cinematic framing and gives the show a much brisker pace than most comedies. It also avoids the irritating "talking heads" syndrome that affects many comedies, whereby the actors are generally confined to a single location with little action punctuating the dialogue.
At the end of the day, though, it is the characters, and their respective actors, who make the show work. While all conforming to broad archetypes, JD and his cronies have a level of depth to them that is not always immediately apparent. Every one of the main characters is capable of being extremely annoying and extremely likeable in equal measure. There are no heroes in this show, no overly-glamorized knights in shining armour who are beyond reproach. Zach Braff is, unsurprisingly, saddled with the majority of the work, and he acquits himself admirably, but there is plenty room for the antics of his colleagues, who start off seeming like standard sitcom/hospital archetypes but develop depth as the series progresses. Sarah Chalke's Elliot, for instance, initially seems like little more than yet another spin on the ditzy blonde who seems to crop up in every single US comedy, but there are layers to her character, as indeed there are to the entire cast. The writing is also remarkably consistent, for the most part making sure that no-one behaves or speaks in a manner that could be considered out of character. In fact, many of the best jokes are the result of characters saying and doing things you would never expect and yet remain believable.
Scrubs takes a while to find its feet during its 24-episode first season, and even once it settles into the swing of things it fails to hit the heights of the later seasons. The chief problem is that, although much of the humour is character-based or visually driven, the odd lame word gag or tired pop culture reference does slip in now and then. The most cringe-inducing occurs in the pilot episode, in which Turk, often saddled by the writers as the bearer of pop culture references, mimics ET's voice when Elliot introduces herself (if you don't get it, thank your lucky stars). A problem that has remained throughout the series, the overly trite moral delivered at the end of each episode via Braff's narration, also starts to grate fairly quickly, as it ensures that everything is wrapped up just a little too neatly at the end of each instalment. This would be less of a problem were it not for the fact that the conclusions reached during each "wrap-up" are almost always screamingly obvious and could have been worked out by all but the dullest viewer without the aid of such direct explanation. These aspects remind us that, despite its rebellious exterior, the show is at its heart centred around fairly traditional values and is not quite as revolutionary as its wackier moments would suggest.
Nevertheless, Scrubs remains compelling viewing. Its anarchic nature is as much a blessing as it is a problem, given that while a number of the jokes do fall flat, the bizarre mixture of the fantastic and the mundane ensures a broad range of subject matter, meaning that there should hopefully be something to appeal to everyone. It is said that those in the medical profession feel that Scrubs is a closer representation of the realities of hospital life than the likes of ER, and I can well believe it...
Scrubs was filmed in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and accordingly is presented as such on DVD. The transfer is watchable for the most part, but it exhibits a number of flaws that prevent it from looking as good as it could. At times is looks rather murky and dull, as if the brightness settings are too low, and the tell-tale artefacts of heavy filtering and noise reduction rear their ugly head in the form of frozen grain patterns and the odd smearing trail. There is also a rather unsightly stair-stepping effect on diagonal edges, something which I would hazard a guess is the result of an NTSC-to-PAL standards conversion. Scrubs is converted using DEFT, so there are no interlaced frames except during instances where footage was edited on video (such as the title sequence), but it seems clear that the PAL master was created from a standard definition NTSC source, meaning that 100 lines of resolution had to be pulled out of nowhere. Compared with Buena Vista's efforts on shows like Alias (which often looks better than many big budget feature films), this is a let-down, but it remains reasonably acceptable and doesn't look any worse than on TV.
For a show not renowned for its sound design, the audio is more than adequate. While the Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track won't win any awards, it is always clear and easy to understand and suffers from no distortion. Subtitles are provided in a wide array of languages, but disappointingly there are no English subtitles for the extras. A handful of dubs is also provided, but strangely the tracks labelled as French and German merely contain copies of the standard English audio. Whether or not this issue has been fixed for the retail copies is anyone's guess.
US syndication rights being what they are, Scrubs has been a long time coming to DVD, and I am happy to report that Buena Vista have decided to provide a feature-packed 4-disc set instead of going down the bare-bones route than many DVD companies opt to take for TV shows.
Commentaries are provided for six episodes, each featuring series creator Bill Lawrence, with various members of the cast chipping in. On the first disc, Lawrence goes it alone for the pilot episode, My First Day, and is joined by Zach Braff for My Old Lady. On Disc 2, he is joined by Neil Flynn for My Fifteen Minutes and Braff again for My Blind Date. Disc Three sees Lawrence teamed up with Sam Lloyd (Todd) and Robert Maschio (Ted, the lawyer) for My Sacrificial Clam. Finally, on Disc 4, John C. McGinley joins Lawrence for My Hero. You'd think that, given the obvious wit of the show itself, the people behind it would be equally amusing, but you'd be wrong. These tracks are, on the whole, not hugely informative, comprised mainly of trivia and brief anecdotes, but they are reasonably listenable if somewhat unsubstantial. The most informative is probably the track for the pilot, where Lawrence goes solo and as a result gets the opportunity to go into slightly more detail than the other tracks, which are frequently comprised of rapid banter between himself and his fellow commentators.
Unlike the US release of this set, which spread the extras across the various discs, all of the bonus features (barring, of course, the commentaries) are contained on the final disc. This is, in my opinion, an infinitely more preferable situation as it means that all the requisite materials can be easily found, instead of having to swap discs. The most substantial extra is Newbies, a 29-minute documentary covering all aspects of the show's production. All of the principal players are on hand to give their opinions about the show, and what struck me most about this feature is the sense of camaraderie that clearly exists between cast and crew.
Up next is a music video for "Superman", an extended version of the show's title theme. Whatever floats your boat, I guess.
"The Doctor Is In" is a five-minute interview with Zach Braff in which he explains how he got the role of JD. Interesting to listen to, but a little disjointed and clearly comprised mainly of bits and pieces from a much longer interview.
Alternate lines: a second opinion is a 9-minute reel of different riffs on various lines and conversations that were left on the cutting room floor. Most of these involve either Neil Flynn as the Janitor or John C. McGinley as Dr. Cox.
In "Not Just Another Medical Show", which runs for 6 minutes, various members of the crew, including Bill Lawrence, director of photography John Inwood, production designer Cabot McMullen and editor John Michel, as well as a number of cast members and the show's medical advisers, discuss the look of the series and the benefits of shooting in a real (albeit disused) hospital as opposed to a studio.
Favourite moments is a fairly interesting 9-minute featurette in which a number of cast and crew members discuss their favourite episodes from the first season.
A series of Outtakes and Deleted scenes are complete the package, both of which are nice but relatively unsubstantial inclusions.
Scrubs is a show that I suspect will appeal to a wide range of people with different tastes. While the first season does not hit the heights of many of the later episodes, and the image quality of this presentation is a little disappointing, there is a lot of fun to be had with this set and as such it gets a thumbs-up from me.