“His Story” (season 2, episode 15; originally aired 01/30/2003)
Let’s not mince words: “His Story” is a gimmick episode.
I am aware that this particular distinction is rarely a positive one: It’s not often someone calls something “gimmicky” and means it as a compliment. I suppose we could call it a “concept” episode if we wanted to avoid the negative stigma attached to “gimmick,” but I don’t know if there’s really a “concept” here. It’s just a simple hypothetical: What would an episode of Scrubs be like if someone other than J.D., specifically Dr. Perry Cox, narrated it?
The result is a conceit—there’s another more positive word we could use—the show would reuse over the course of its run, shifting narrative perspective to shake things up and isolate a particular piece of character development. However, one of the reasons I prefer “gimmick” in this case is because “His Story” doesn’t necessarily tell us anything profound about Dr. Cox. In fact, “His Story” is most memorable for a moment that he has nothing to do with, suggesting that, at least in its first incarnation, this gimmick was more a novelty than a stroke of narrative genius.
To be fair, I like the insight into Dr. Cox’s character, but not really on the level of character development. Hearing him mentally cycle through girls’ names to call J.D. and mistakenly landing on one he has used before is one of those great moments in the dynamic between the two characters, a clever use of the new perspective. The problem is that it never really evolves beyond clever: The meetings with the shrink are “Character Development 101,” Cox’s lack of friends is exaggerated for the sake of making a point, and his storyline with Kelso offers a decent resolution (in which Cox takes J.D.’s advice) but makes no further impact. The switch in perspective is a fun diversion, and it certainly helps the episode stand out on the surface, but I’m not convinced the storytelling in the episode changed enough to make a more profound statement. Of course, I also don’t feel it had to make a profound statement: As a clever gimmick for generating a few laughs, it worked well.
The more resonant side of the episode follows Turk and Carla as they continue to dance around the question of marriage, eventually culminating in the beautiful proposal scene that closes the episode. In truth, the buildup to that moment is merely adequate: The introduction of a new potential love interest (the diner waitress, who was formerly Matt Lauer’s assistant on The Today Show) is forced, and the scene that eventually pushes Carla into agreeing to say “Yes” is a pretty typical “Advice about someone else’s situation morphs into working out your own problems” sequence that also felt like it was just dropped in to push the story to this point.
However, the past few episodes did a nice job of drawing out the proposal without having it cramp the show’s style, and I’m willing to suspend a desire for “natural” plot developments when dealing with something as whimsical as a marriage proposal. It helps, of course, that the proposal takes place during a tremendous sequence set to Rhett Miller’s “Question”—Bill Lawrence reveals on the commentary track for the episode that the crew actually started with the song and built the scene around it, which explains the charming silent movie vibe.
What I love about the scene is that it’s not some grand proposal (J.D.’s sparklers withstanding), but it feels large thanks to the playful staging and it’s made meaningful through performances that draw out the importance of the moment without words or large-scale theatrics. It might still be a gimmick on some level, perhaps, but it’s a gimmick that transcends its novelty and becomes one of the show’s iconic moments.
“My Karma” (season 2, episode 16; originally aired 02/20/2003)
You’ll notice that I didn’t discuss the introduction of Ricky Schroder’s Paul Flowers above, and that’s largely because I wanted to save that discussion for “My Karma,” where the character becomes… well, actually, he’s pretty equally boring across both episodes. (This isn’t to say that Schroder gives a terrible performance—it’s adequate.) Also in the non-boring column: The concept of Elliot dating a male nurse, which brings out some of her more entertaining insecurities.
However, the problem is simply that Schroder isn’t asked to do anything more than seem disinterested. He’s a blank slate against which Eliot’s “molten crazy” is thrown in this episode, only rendered charming or desirable through Elliot identifying him as charming or desirable (although I may be missing the attachment others feel based on Schroder’s child-star past). Bill Lawrence alludes to some tension over Schroder’s conservatism in the commentary track on “His Story,” and you sense that any wilder plans the writers might have had for the character (like, for example, giving him a personality) might have been toned down once they actually got on set. Sarah Chalke does her best holding up her side of the storyline, but as far as short-term love interests go, Paul doesn’t make any impression—I had no memory of this character, and I’m not convinced I’ll have a memory of him a year from now.
Oddly, while “His Story” doesn’t end up offering much insight into Perry, “My Karma” is very Perry-centric as he prepares for the birth of Jordan’s son, who we learn at the end of the episode is actually his son as well. It’s a detail that’s tough to forget once you’ve seen the entire series and know that Jack is his son, but I’m guessing it would have been a nice reveal at the time. Jordan’s character is such that we’d believe she could be having someone else’s baby, and his devotion to raising the kid despite his belief it isn’t his does reflect on the character’s true nature (which, Jordan reveals, was the whole point of the deception).
The show doesn’t need to be in Perry’s head to get to this point. The show uses the now fully rehabilitated relationship with Carla (herself having recently made an important life decision) as a sounding board, resulting in a nice, subtle scene as the two characters work through that point when you know that, even if you’re still terrified, you’re ready to make a commitment. There isn’t anything particularly profound about the notion that you’re ready to take that leap when you want to stick around even as things suck (e.g. Jordan’s labor-induced rage in a low-rent birthing suite with a resident physician instead of an attending), but it fits what we know about the characters, and nicely pushes Perry back into the room.
It’s paired, of course, with Jordan using J.D. as her emotional sponge, getting all of the vulnerability out of the way before Perry returns to the room. Christa Miller was required to frequently switch gears as Jordan, but she channels her base-level of anger well even as she laments how she pushed Perry away in her attempts to test his level of commitment (which, by all accounts, was pretty fantastic). It doesn’t feel like a different character delivering that speech: It still feels like Jordan, just in a more vulnerable place than we’ve seen her to date. As she becomes more integrated into the fabric of the series, and as we watch Jack grow over the course of the show, the balance Miller establishes here proves an important foundation.
It also sets up a clear conflict in the weeks ahead, with J.D. holding a piece of information that Perry would certainly like to know—while the show did something similar with Elliot learning the baby’s sex, that was resolved in a single episode, not turned into a cliffhanger of sorts. While the basic dynamic between J.D. and Perry is already strong, it can also be a bit repetitive, so giving them a specific piece of information to create conflict is a nice way to mix things up and highlight that dynamic further. It ends up a fitting conclusion to “My Karma,” nicely re-engineering the events of this episode into a story engine for the third act of the second season.
- Apologies for the unplanned one-week hiatus: After some tech difficulties, it was decided that we’d take the break and just push back the schedule. I’m choosing to take it as a vote of confidence, given that we’ll now be extending into May sweeps!
- Janitor Watch: There’s a pretty simple “J.D. vs. the Janitor” riff in “His Story,” but “My Karma” is notable for being the Janitor’s first direct interaction with another character—in this case Turk. His confusion as to who Turk even is is a fun nod to the character’s isolation, and while the windshield storyline isn’t brilliant, it does begin the integration we’ve been waiting for.
- Favorite bit from the strong Bill Lawrence/John C. McGinley commentary track on “His Story”: That diner set was built inside the hospital, in the cafeteria specifically.
- I’m still not entirely sure why Turk felt it was necessary to talk to his patient about why he was experiencing pain at the end of “My Karma”; It seems like there was a scene missing where he discovered some sort of wrongdoing he was ignoring. I get the goal to bring it all around to karma, but I did a double take when the scene popped up in the ending montage.
- Punchline I intend to use more often in real life: “Apartheid.” Always funny!
- Lawrence suggests that the proposal scene in “His Story” is guaranteed to get people laid, a theory that I’ve never tested but seems at least mildly probable—if anyone cares to try it out, report back in the comments. Or, don’t, because it would be kind of creepy if you did.
- It seems bizarre, but “My Karma” was the only episode Scrubs aired during the 2003 February sweeps perioud, which is perhaps part of why the show began its ratings decline in subsequent seasons.
- “WHO AM I?!”: I’m not shocked the show received complaints from the Alzheimer’s Society, but Johnny the Tackling Alzheimer’s patient certainly makes an impact.
Next week: The charms of private practice and the allure of T.C.W.