Bill Lawrence, co-creator and producer of ABC's Spin City, came up with the idea for Scrubs in 2001. He based some of the story on the experience of his college friend Dr Jonathan Doris and his time at Brown Medical School. Â The show was made by ABC studios but actually broadcast by NBC.
Scrubs is a single camera comedy whose story is largely told through the perspective of J.D. This choice meant that J.D. would provide voice-overs both to discuss other people's stories and provide his own inner monologue. The show also featured many cutaway gags often to J.D's imagination.
The show premiered to huge ratings as part of NBC's Thursday night comedy block which included Friends. At that stage this meant twenty million people were tuning in and Scrubs' first three seasons managed to hang on to over half of that audience despite being pre-empted and moved around the schedule.
The first season was an outstanding achievement as the story of life in a hospital was often told with the emotion of a serious medical drama while also providing laughs and zany characters. However seasons two and three began to reveal that the show had said most of what it was going to say about hospital life. The moral messages became repetitive as the comedy became ever sillier and less real.
When season four began the show was permanently moved to Tuesdays and the audience dropped to just over six million. The audience gently declined over the next three years to the point where NBC didn't want to air it anymore. Negotiations continued throughout 2008 before it was announced that ABC would air the eighth and final season.
The final season introduced a group of new interns who contrasted with the lives of J.D. and his fellow, now experienced, doctors. The eighth season ended with "My Finale" wrapping up J.D's story and production on the show.
However ABC and Lawrence decided to continue the show and season nine went ahead with new interns and only a few of the original cast remaining. Lawrence did try to have the season made with a new title to make it distinct from the rest of Scrubs but ABC declined. The show's ratings were terrible and in May 2010 ABC announced its cancellation.
When I was at university in 2002 I used to watch Buffy and Angel with friends in the bar of our halls of residence. Scrubs began to be heavily advertised and featured following the broadcast of those shows. The other students in the bar had no interest in further American television and so it wasn't until about a year later that I saw season one of Scrubs.
I was instantly struck by the clever format of the show. Scrubs felt like a unique hybrid to me. Unlike other comedies of the time it was filmed by a single camera like a drama and filmed in a real hospital giving it a completely different feel to Friends and Frasier, the most successful comedies at that time. The show definitely had the feel of the ensemble work on Spin City while also taking the first person narration from The Wonder Years and the zany exaggerations of Ally McBeal.
The key to the first season's success though was the way the characters came across. J.D, Elliott, Turk and Carla were all given deeply sympathetic arcs as they tried to survive the rigors and stress of working in a hospital. The show very much presented its characters as real people, despite the craziness they might encounter and certainly presented their calling as noble.
My feeling remains though that Lawrence told all of his hospital-based stories in season one. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the next seven seasons were simply repeating the same message just in different ways. Unfortunately those different ways became increasingly silly. Sacred Heart became increasingly unlike a real hospital and J.D. would play the buffoon in ways which made it harder to believe he was a real person.
I would love to go back and review the first season but it's obviously low on my priority list right now. I would also feel compelled to then chart the show's decline from that point but I'm not sure I will ever have the time.
In my opinion Scrubs left a horrible legacy for American sit coms. By pioneering a new set of parameters for the sit com genre Scrubs unwittingly unleashed a set of ideas that have done a lot of damage.
With Friends and Frasier providing in some ways the climax of the success of the studio audience based sit com it was only natural that producers would look around for a different way of making comedy. Scrubs was ideally suited to being filmed in a serious manner at a real location. It would have been very hard to make a hospital sit com on a soundstage with actors pausing to allow an audience to laugh at their lines.
However the idea then dominated the 2000s that the studio-based sit com was old fashioned. This was an entirely false premise and in 2011 it's worth noting that the most successful comedies on television (including Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory) are still based around that live audience interaction. Sit coms that have no need to be single camera shows have been made constantly since Scrubs appeared and most have sunk without a trace.
Scrubs also helped pioneer (along with Family Guy) the cutaway gag. Again this worked fine during the early seasons of the show where the serious business of hospital work could be given a fun twist through J.D's imagination. However as time went on these cutaways became ever more obscure, pointless and no longer funny. The cutaway joke now infuses all single camera comedies because writers are afraid to script lines which would sound too old fashioned and so rely on this overused technique to provide humour.
Finally Scrubs became obsessed with its self. As the seasons passed the show became more and more self referential. J.D's wandering mind, his voice overs, the show's format, even its emotive music were all directly referenced or mocked by the characters themselves. This interference with the fourth wall almost always damages rather than helps a show that is based in reality. The producers of shows like Arrested Development and 30 Rock learnt all the wrong lessons from Scrubs and this trend of sketch comedy or spoof has spilled into the domain of sit com where it doesn't belong.
After Scrubs ended Bill Lawrence jumped immediately into producing Cougar Town, another ABC sit com starring Courtney Cox. Cougar Town took all the worst self-referential, exaggerated parts of Scrubs and combined them with the shrill aspects of Monica that made the end of Friends such a disappointment. Bill Lawrence has now been making sit coms non-stop since 1996. He has never had a break in that time. He has never got off the treadmill to take some time out and maybe reconsider how comedy works. He is clearly a talented guy but I think a break would do him good.