Goofy, cartoonish, and the most accurate portrayal of the medical profession on TV.
Any fictional television show about a real profession runs the risk of getting things wrong. I work for a newspaper and cringe whenever I see reporters portrayed on TV. (They're always so self-serving and venal. What's up with that?) I once interviewed a criminology professor who complained about the stunningly obvious things CSI characters say at crime scenes. Real forensic investigators, he explained, don't shout, "Look at this! It looks like blood! We'd better send it to the lab!" But if you talk to doctors, they'll often sing the praises of one medical show in particular, which they say captures the training process, the profession, and the dynamics of a hospital with remarkable accuracy. No, it's not House, the tale of a misanthrope who happens to be a doctor. It's not Grey's Anatomy, a torrid romance novel disguised as a medical show. It's not even the recently departed ER, which broke television ground with its realistic gore. It's Scrubs.
After seven seasons on NBC and an eighth on ABC, the series airs tonight what might be its final episode. If it returns next fall—"a coin flip," at this point, creator Bill Lawrence told me—it will feel like a different show, tracking familiar characters but at a different stage in their lives and careers. Scrubs follows the travails of doctors John "J.D." Dorian (Zach Braff), Christopher Turk (Donald Faison), and Elliot Reed (Sarah Chalke), who launched their careers in 2001 as interns at the fictional Sacred Heart Hospital.
To the layman, the half-hour sitcom may hardly seem like a paragon of factual accuracy. Its approach isn't realist or vérité—on the contrary, it's essentially a live-action cartoon, filled with fantasy cut-aways, bathroom humor, sex jokes, and jiggy dances. At any moment, a Sacred Heart physician might imagine sick patients ballroom dancing through the ward or a scowling malpractice lawyer strutting through the waiting room and tossing out business cards like a blackjack dealer. J.D., meanwhile, has been known to contemplate a tough medical decision while stroking Justin, his stuffed "soul-searching unicorn."
This probably doesn't sound like any hospital you've visited. But if you look past the cartoonishness, you find a series that's quite in tune with the real lives of doctors—and unlike your typical medical drama, one that's not required to end each episode with a climactic surgical procedure or whiz-bang diagnosis. ER, for instance, was about the heroic things doctors do to save lives, and every episode was rife with calamity. Scrubs, on the other hand, is mostly about what happens at hospitals between crises—the way doctors and nurses handle ordinary cases. And doctors say that as a depiction of the residency process, the show hits strikingly familiar emotional notes. J.D. narrates nearly every episode in a voice-over, setting up jokes and transitions between bits, but also describing his thoughts and insecurities. Doctors say they recognize in J.D.'s internal monologue the real thought processes of a young doctor at work.
"He says exactly what a resident feels, day in or day out. 'Am I hurting the patient? Am I learning what I should? Am I kissing up too much to the attending?' " says Jonathan Samuels, an attending rheumatologist at the NYU Hospital for Joint Diseases. "I always thought Scrubs was right on."
If the show feels like somebody's real-life experience, that's probably because it is. Creator Bill Lawrence, the man behind Spin City, Clone High, and the upcoming Cougar Town, built Scrubs around stories from his college friend Jonathan Doris, now a cardiologist in Los Angeles and a medical adviser to the show. He found humor in Doris' experiences, he says, and also a truth about human nature that's not often seen in medical shows. "In television, we like our doctors to be very heroic and very dramatic, and they kick doors open, and they say the word stat a lot," Lawrence says. But: "If your buddy was a funny kind of goofball that made jokes out of everything in college, then as a doctor, he's the same guy."
Some moments from Doris' residency found their way directly onto Scrubs, says Dr. Paul Pirraglia, an internist in Providence, R.I., who was part of Doris' Brown University resident class. In the pilot, J.D. performs a procedure called a paracentesis to drain fluid from a patient's distended belly; he turns away for a moment, then looks back to discover a geyser of fluid gushing into the air. It happened—just like that—to a fellow resident at Brown. Lawrence says Doris, like the fictional J.D., also hid in a closet early in his residency to avoid being the first doctor on the scene when a patient was coding.
In fact, Lawrence says, nearly every medical scenario on the show has originated with a real-life situation, tweaked a little bit for drama and the constraints of half-hour comedy. Each year, he assigns his writers to interview five doctors and report back with story ideas. Doctors often volunteer funny stories as well, he says, though many of them involve objects that patients manage to insert in their rear ends—a plotline Lawrence and his crew could use only once. (For Scrubs purposes, it was a light bulb.)
Joanna Weiss is an Op-Ed columnist for the Boston Globe and author of the novel Milkshake.
Still of Zach Braff in Scrubs © ABC, INC.