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GUEST BLOG #6: Tom Brinkmoeller Adds 'Scrubs' to List of TV Classics
April 8, 2009  | By Tom Brinkmoeller
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Tonight's prime-time TV is a very active lineup. One of TV's best current series, ABC's Lost, presents another fresh episode, while NBC's Life, one of that network's best, presents what may be its final gasp. ABC also presents the premiere of a new series, The Unusuals.

But today's guest columnist, Tom Brinkmoeller, shifts our focus to an ABC show, formerly on NBC, that he feels has yet to get its due respect: the veteran medical sitcom Scrubs...

'Scrubs' operates like a TV classic

By Tom Brinkmoeller

There are really bad sitcoms (think Hello, Larry and you may have begun at history's lowest point). There are really funny sitcoms: 30 Rock, Seinfeld, Barney Miller and Taxi get high spots on that long list.

Then there are really amazing half-hour blocks of television that also make you laugh. That list isn't so long. M*A*S*H did it almost weekly for years. A scene could have you laughing, due to the rare blending of great writing and amazing acting skills. A moment later, those same actors, doing lines written by those same fine writers, could make you gasp at the drama, choke up with the depth of the situation, and, until you were led through the heavy and into lighter scenery again, forget the funny lines you had laughed at just moments earlier.

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Gary David Goldberg claimed a spot on this special list in 1991 with Brooklyn Bridge, the story of a Jewish family's interactions with their extended family and the changing world around them in 1950s New York. It was a gem of a concept, polished by extraordinary writing and near-perfect casting.

But half-hour series that can tap into that kind of magical mix of humor and true human feeling just don't make it to the air that often. Dream teams make these kinds of programs, and the dynamic of most television programming today has little to do with assembling great talent and making video art. Dreams of pumping money into unscripted series, rather than having to pay writers, top many TV executive wish lists.

Even so, one of those rare entities holds on to network space today. Scrubs, a series that was consistently excellent on its former I-don't-get-it network, NBC, has thrived even more under a friendly ABC roof this season. I can't remember a half-hour series since M*A*S*H that has matched comedy and drama so masterfully for so long a run (Brooklyn Bridge didn't make it through two seasons on CBS).

Last week's episode, "My Full Moon," made me wish I was a member of the Television Academy, so I could give it my acting and writing votes. Set during the overnight shift at the hospital, Elliot (Sarah Chalke) and Turk (Donald Faison) carried about 90 percent of the comedy and drama that made this an exceptional episode of an exceptional series. None of the other first-team members of the cast appeared last week. Watching over this year's unique group of interns as they dealt with a full moon and how its forces can affect hospitals, Turk and Elliot steered the story through lots of really funny situations, and some genuinely touching ones.

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One patient was trying to chew off his sutures, and an intern decided the way to stop that action was to put his head in a cone, the way vets do with dogs. Another patient had taken a dangerous substance, but he thought evil doubles were substituting for the medical staff. His way of dealing with the duplicates was to confuse them by telling them different stories of the substance he had taken. Another patient, a very proper woman, couldn't be discharged until she farted -- something she would rather die than do.

All funny situations, all set up and resolved with great skill and many laughs. At the same time, a female patient looked as though she would provide a comedic fourth to the episode. But the writers steered her story into a different vector, and the resulting diagnosis put all the laughs aside and brought a real seriousness that was touching. So was a continuing, sometimes interrupted, conversation between Elliot and Turk about the eight years that have passed since they were new interns and their thoughts about what they would be doing in the future.

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The half-hour ended, not with a huge laugh, but with a more rewarding insight into the character Ms. Chalke has made into Elliot during Scrubs' previous seven seasons.

Scrubs executive producer Bill Lawrence often crafts his stories in such ways, and each year he seems to get better at it. (Though I wonder if this small masterpiece even would have seen airtime at the series' former parent network, where a dense designation is a sought-after merit badge.) Usually he uses the whole talented cast to tell his story. This episode isolated only two of them, and the impact was very effective.

When M*A*S*H ended in 1983, the finale was a justifiably major event, and the audience size (106 million) reflected how people valued this special series. I hope that when Scrubs signs off for good this year, some tributes similar to the scores written for M*A*S*H will honor this other life-and-death, hilarious and heart-touching, doctor-and-nurse one-of-a-kind piece of television art.



Tom writes: For a number of years, Tom Brinkmoeller was paid to watch and write about television. That seemingly ideal situation can't match his current one: Watching only what he enjoys, not being held hostage by a paycheck, and not having to steer a TV story through editors who think watching television impairs the brain as well as social status.


Sarah said:

I agree. I didn't really pay much attention to Scrubs until four or five years ago but once I started watching I was hooked. I haven't said it out loud but I too see a lot of M*A*S*H in it. Each character has their own "life" that makes me like them. I laugh I cry and just have fun watching it and will miss it when it is gone. So cheers to J.D, Turk, Eliot, Carla, Cox, Kelso, Janitor, The Todd, even the new interns and the rest! Always remember everything comes down to poo!

(Sarah -- I wanted to thank you for your feedback -- especially the comparison to M*A*S*H. I was a little afraid some of the M*A*S*H fans might have considered my favorable comparison of the two to be near-heresy. I will very much miss the series when it's gone, too. -- Tom)

Comment posted on April 8, 2009 6:28 PM
Joe said:

In the exalted realm of excellent final series episodes we should include "The Wonder Years", "The Bob Newhart Show" (VT edition), "St. Elsewhere", and, of course "Mary Tyler Moore".

(Joe -- Thanks for the comment. We have similar tastes in TV series. What bothers me is I can't remember the "Wonder Years" finale. Was there something about him and Winnie finally getting together at that special place in the park where they used to play? Or am I imagining that, the way Dr. Westphall's son had by creating the entire storyline from the miniature inside his snow globe? I'll blame my age as reason for losing details. -- Tom)

Comment posted on April 9, 2009 9:56 AM
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