“My Balancing Act” and “My Drug Buddy” (season 1, episodes 13-14; originally aired 01/15/2002 and 01/22/2002)
In treating these two episodes together, I am technically looking to find a way to keep this review from spiraling out of control in terms of length, given that it’s a busy time of year. However, the two episodes also function as a middle and end to “The Alex Arc,” the first in what will be a long line of relationship storylines for the character of J.D. and the first opportunity to confront the character’s relationship trajectory.
Last week, I suggested that J.D. could be seen as a parallel with another sitcom protagonist, How I Met Your Mother’s Ted Mosby. While some of this has to do with each character’s unlikable tendencies being amped up in later seasons, I’m primarily interested in the nature of their romantic relationships, which become the central interest of Scrubs in both “My Balancing Act” and “My Drug Buddy.”
Specifically, I’m finding it interesting to re-watch J.D.’s romantic relationship with Alex (and his subsequent hookup with Elliot) in the context of a broader series arc, which is one of the problems that How I Met Your Mother has continually run into. Because that show is predicated on the larger romantic arc structure of “The Mother,” there is an immediate skepticism around any romantic partner that Ted acquires given that the show is unlikely to “solve” its central mystery, especially in earlier seasons. While I wouldn’t necessarily say that any of Ted’s short-term relationships would have been ideal without that mystery (given how dull characters like Zoey were at the end of the day), I do think that viewers’ immediate distrust of those storylines has played a major role in the perception that Ted is an unlikable character. There was a time—think back around “Ten Sessions,” featuring Sarah Chalke—when Ted’s romanticism was the heart of the show, but after four seasons of being sold a false bill of goods on a continual basis the audience has turned against a central function of 20-something sitcom structure—romantic relationships—as they manifest within that series.
As I watched these episodes, I had that experience in the back of my mind, and did what I could to transport myself back into a 2002 mindset (which is difficult, given that I don’t have any clear memory of watching the series week-to-week during its first season). In returning to “My Balancing Act,” building from Alex’s MRI containment back in “My Blind Date,” I wondered if Alex would have been seen as anything but a fling back when the episode first premièred. Were people speculating about “MRI Girl” becoming a part of the main cast, or had the early 2000s equivalent to Michael Ausiello already reported that it was only a short-term arc?* And, perhaps more importantly, had the show left J.D. and Elliot on the table enough that Alex was, like Ted’s various non-Mother relationships, considered just a stopgap solution to where J.D. and Elliot inevitably end up at the end of “My Drug Buddy?”
* I am not shy about my frustration with the way in which spoiler culture has permeated the coverage of the television industry, now to the point where what used to be spoilers has become accepted as news—I use Ausiello as an example both because he and The A.V. Club are sworn enemies, and because he’s certainly responsible for its proliferation across multiple sites.
On some level, it’s tough to evaluate these episodes because we know the story—there was likely once an element of surprise in Alex turning out to be the addict in question, but that’s largely gone when we know that Alex is the person stealing drugs before we know there’s a person stealing drugs. That goes for any twist, of course, but there’s something about the nature of this relationship that makes this arc less pleasurable to return. Much of this has to do, I would argue, with how quickly the relationship is introduced and normalized within the story: While the episode establishes that the two have an instant infatuation, using it to test J.D.’s ability to balance having a relationship with the rigors of being an Intern (thus resulting in his missed date, their initial breakup, and then their eventual reconciliation), the shortcuts it takes to get there are certainly noticeable. It’s a lot to cram into a single episode, to the point where I wonder if I wouldn’t have been skeptical of the relationship even when watching “My Balancing Act” for the first time.
I also think that, while I know the twist is meaningful for J.D. and Elliot in the long run (and I can’t emphasize enough how much I enjoy how that development is handled in the short term), there is something dissatisfying about the way Alex is dismissed here. She becomes a prop, rendered functional (rather than meaningful) by the way her introduction is used to force J.D. and Elliot together, which is a move that simultaneously reinforces and undermines the clichés the series is tackling when setting up this will-they, won’t-they relationship. On the one hand, it reinforces the fact that we are to see Elliot and J.D. as a natural pair, as two people who have the capacity to sleep together based on mutual attraction. However, at the same time, the show undercuts its own narrative expectations: After introducing the idea back in “My Best Friend’s Mistake” and quashing it, the show has largely played down any romantic tension between them. Even in “My Drug Buddy,” I would argue, J.D.’s portrayal of Elliot as jealous is very much meant to be read as irrational and selfish, which makes Elliot’s actual jealousy (and subsequent jumping of J.D.) that much more surprising.
When we return after the holidays, we’ll tackle the aftermath (in which the show explores the nature of that decision in what is one of the series’ most memorable episodes), but re-watching “My Drug Buddy” I couldn’t help but feel that Elliot’s decision doesn’t make any sense, selling the character short. We don’t have any evidence to suggest that she still has any sort of feelings for J.D., at least not unless we take Elliot’s wild ride on the washing machine as a sexual awakening that happened to connect with the late male with which she shared any sort of romantic connection. We’re so inside J.D.’s head within the narrative that we have no way of decoding Elliot’s decision, which is great for rendering this moment as a surprise but problematic when considering the character’s agency.
The tricky thing about television relationships is keeping them from seeming like television relationships, and there is something inherently televisual about Alex’s introduction, her subsequent exit, and Elliot jumping J.D. at episode’s end. One of the benefits of Turk and Carla is that the series has never presented them as a will-they, won’t-they: They just are. As a result, we’re able to see them go through the typical post-“I love you” jitters without any real concern that their relationship is about to fall apart. Yes, they still follow televisual clichés of how relationships are supposed to function, but it never feels like their partnership is the product of that televisuality. As noted last week, they really are the Lily and Marshall to J.D.’s Ted, but those who watch that series know how Carter Bays and Craig Thomas upended that dynamic at the end of the first season. Scrubs, generally, avoided hitting that switch, choosing instead to maintain J.D. at the center of all complex romantic triangles (at least once one explicitly introduced in “My Drug Buddy” is more or less resolved, which I’ll get to in a moment).
This isn’t to say that one relationship is “done right” while the other is “done wrong,” as I’m a sucker for a good will-they, won’t-they built around consistent sexual tension. However, the constant flux which will define J.D.’s romantic life ends up becoming one of the series’ biggest problems in future seasons, and I wonder if the precedent established here (of what are effectively drive-by relationships with ultimately generic female passerby) doesn’t ultimately infect the character’s larger arc. While on some level J.D. is a victim here, taken advantage of by an addict, this is also the beginning of the version of the character who would become more frustrating as the seasons move forward.
Again, it’s tough to explore this in full until we get to “My Bed Banter & Beyond,” but I wanted to get some of these questions out there given their growing importance as the season goes on.
Meanwhile, though, I actually quite like what the rest of Sacred Heart is up to in these episodes. While the storyline isn’t particularly substantial within “My Balancing Act,” I very much enjoy Cox’s subversion of Kelso’s authority and the notion that, more than anyone else in the hospital, Kelso needs the relationship he has with the people around him to remain the same in order to function. He needs to be feared in order to feel as though he has any sense of authority, and seeing Cox reinstate that fear was a nice moment of respect (and, on some level, an implicit reference back to “My Day Off” when Cox’s own mentor emphasized the need to establish a more civil relationship with Kelso).
That being said, my favorite Kelso story in these episodes is easily his interactions with Carla in “My Drug Buddy,” which I just really like as an exploration of an unorthodox friendship. We’re still working our way towards the wonders of “My Tuscaloosa Heart,” but Kelso is slowly becoming a more complex character, and there is something wonderfully cruel about the way he splashes Carla that doesn’t entirely erase the shine he took to her in earlier scenes. Indeed, this is a period in which we begin to see layers to Kelso that the show would explore for a few years before allowing the character to get wrapped up in the zaniness of later seasons. Ken Jenkins does fantastic work throughout, but he’s at his best when he’s given a storyline where his cruelty feels like a natural human reaction to something like Carla being ashamed of her association with him.
As for the other major storyline introduced here, the show has been building to the idea of Dr. Cox and Carla for a while now, but it’s something that I’m not sure the show ever actually sells. Granted, I really enjoy Turk and Dr. Cox’s urinal chats, which capture the uncomfortable nature of their interactions beautifully, and I enjoy any circumstance in which a character imposes themselves upon Dr. Cox, thus angering him greatly. The problem is that Turk eventually jumps to the conclusion that Dr. Cox is “in love” with Carla, a contention that feels like a leap: He might care for Carla, and he might have feelings for Carla, but the show spent all of “My Balancing Act” talking about the complications the word “Love” creates, so to see it thrown out so brazenly seems like a bit of a stretch, a force to jump to “OMG LOVE TRIANGLE” without really going through all of the leg work.
A lot of this probably sounds fairly critical of episodes that I think are still quite funny, and which feature some successful storylines and memorable lines. And yet, at the same time, one of the things which makes Scrubs so interesting is it isn’t a perfect show—while some shows enter into recent television history based on one perfect season, or one tremendous stretch of episodes, Scrubs was always a bit uneven. What separates it from other uneven shows, though, is that when it reaches for something it feels like it’s reaching beyond its own genre, a quality that would become more important within television comedy as the decade went on (including for shows like How I Met Your Mother) and a quality we’ll see when we return.
- I mentioned the Scrubs Wiki last week (you can check out their entries for “My Balancing Act” and “My Drug Buddy”), but a quick Google search also reveals that there’s been some kind folks — particular user “remlap” — posting links to these reviews over at the Scrubs Reddit, so a shoutout in their general direction this week.
- While I feel like a terrible reviewer for not offering more in this area this week, things are a bit hectic in the real world around these parts, so I’ll leave it in your capable hands to cover quotes and the like. On that note, though, I wanted to thank all of you who have been reading and commenting so far—while our group has grown smaller since the initial “Scrubs: Yea or Nay?” debate wore down, I’ve very much enjoyed the conversations even as my available time to comment has dwindled. I’m very much looking forward to continuing these conversations after the holiday break (which will end on January 2, I believe, which will be just in time for this column to return), and wish you and yours a wonderful holiday season.
- Okay, one quote: “Well that’s a waste of a gift certificate!”
Next time: An exploration of the tempestuousness of temporality, and an exploration of emotional release.