Like ”Undeclared” and the as-yet-to-premiere ”Bernie Mac Show,” ”Scrubs” is a TV rarity: a new sitcom with an original look and point of view, and the merciful absence of a familiar star attempting a comeback. Scrubs’ premise is an easily summarized pitch – it’s ”ER” as a comedy; ”M*A*S*H” in peacetime, with newbie interns. But the series is distinguished by the unexpected interplay between its well-cast characters and the shrewd strategy it deploys to avoid making its overriding themes (illness, death) a poor-taste downer.
Our hero is John ”J.D.” Dorian, played by Zach Braff, who looks like a youthful cross between Ray Romano and Ed’s Tom Cavanagh – a perfect TV-likable naif. Scrubs started on J.D.’s first day at a big-city hospital, where he’s a lowly medical resident at the mercy of the more experienced nursing staff, who view his fumbles with IVs and catheters with disdain. (One of the best aspects of Scrubs is its hearty class animus – the nurses are portrayed as smart, dedicated, but disgruntled workers made bitter and vengeful by scores of arrogant young doctors who grab the lifesaving glory while the nurses are left with the tedious, messy work.)
In fact, class divisions are a pervasive Scrubs subtext. J.D.’s longtime best buddy is Chris Turk (Donald Faison, from ”Felicity”), whose decision to pursue surgery has put him among a more esteemed, cocky group within the hospital than J.D.’s bedraggled band of temperature takers; their friendship is strained because of it.
The series’ creator, Bill Lawrence (”Spin City”), plays off the hospital-show expectations we might bring to Scrubs after years of watching classy-doc dramas like ”ER,” ”Chicago Hope,” and ”St. Elsewhere.” Like Hope’s Dr. Phillip Watters (Hector Elizondo) or Elsewhere’s kindly Dr. Donald Westphall (Ed Flanders), the leader of Scrubs’ hospital is also a wise, earnest, older man, Dr. Bob Kelso (Ken Jenkins) – except that with Kelso, pious concern is just an act. Behind his crinkly eyes and warm smile lies a brain simmering with resentment over the onus of bureaucratic detail, and a general feeling that he’d rather be playing golf. He’s no one to go to for advice or comfort.
In the show’s most original move, ”Scrubs” one true good man is also its loosest cannon. John C. McGinley is giving a career-making performance as the flinty, sarcastic Dr. Cox, an experienced doctor who is, on the surface, everything we fear in a healer we might come into contact with: a bully with cold eyes, a short temper, and a black sense of humor.
But just as ”M*A*S*H’s” ”Hawkeye” Pierce made jaundiced puns about jaundice because war inspired cynicism as a defense mechanism, Dr. Cox staves off J.D.’s petrified stares (one nurse, Carla, played saucily by Judy Reyes, calls him ”Bambi” for his doe-eyed fearfulness) with a suck-it-up attitude. J.D. and the colleague he’s inescapably attracted to – willowy Elliot Reid (Roseanne’s Sarah Chalke) – desperately want Dr. Cox to mentor them (the second episode was entitled ”My Mentor”), and Cox resists the role. But it’s because, we discover, he’s tired and fearful too; his only advice against disease and decay is ”Everything is a stall – we’re just trying to keep the game going.”
Lawrence and the writers stuff ”Scrubs” with a bit too much voice-over narration by J.D., and a few too many fantasy sight gags, as when Elliot is seen, after making a hospital faux pas, literally digging her own grave. But better a surfeit of creativity than a dearth of it, especially on a network whose other big freshman comedy, ”Inside Schwartz,” can barely stretch its gimmicks into a second week. Indeed, Scrubs really deserves the plum spot between ”Friends” and ”Will & Grace” that Schwartz was handed – Scrubs’ genial skepticism is much more suited to NBC Thursdays. But maybe the network figured that if we spent a half hour laughing at the stat!-paced jokes on Scrubs, we’d never be able to take Dr. Mark Greene’s sad-sack shtick on ER seriously again.