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Scrubs: “My Old Man”/“My Way Or The Highway”

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“My Old Man” (season 1, episode 19; originally aired 04/09/2002)

Television parents are a particularly interesting narrative tool, one that is often used early in a show’s life to provide instant backstory on characters that we know outside of a family setting. Indeed, whenever a show focuses on a workplace or on a set of friends or roommates, you’re just waiting for the moment their parents show up to complicate their lives. CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, for example, has gotten a lot of mileage out of mothers, with both Christine Baranski (as Leonard’s mother) and Laurie Metcalf (as Sheldon’s mother) providing some sitcom credibility to the series (in addition to the unseen presence of Mrs. Wolowitz). ABC’s Happy Endings, meanwhile, has revealed a parent for every single character but Alex and Jane (even pairing up Dave’s father and Penny’s mother, played by Michael McKean and Megan Mullally respectively, in last week’s solid episode).

Not one to sit back and wait, Scrubs gets most of the parents out of the way in “My Old Man,” a theme-driven episode that is very much about parents and how characters relate to them. Every sitcom episode featuring the arrival of a parent boils down to this, at least upon their first appearance, so I don’t mean to suggest that Scrubs is reducing the trope in being so blatant here. However, there are nonetheless elements of this episode that end up feeling a bit overdone, nailing home the central theme a bit too often for it to have any significant impact. Bringing all of the parents together at once makes for a cohesive episode, but it calls attention to the gimmicky nature of parents within sitcoms without really mounting much in the way of a critique, making for a somewhat contrived piece of storytelling.

It’s a case where I think the parts of the episode are somewhat poorly served by the more general elements of the show. If we were to isolate the storylines, they feel like they fall at a good point for the characters. Turk and Elliot presenting a paper to a conference is a nice way to push Elliot toward a crisis of confidence, and filtering it through both her difficult relationship with her father and Dr. Kelso’s indifferent relationship toward Elliot was smart, while having Turk’s mother bond with Carla and complicate the Turk-Carla relationship was a good step forward for that coupling. Neither storyline was transformational, and the casting of both Elliot’s parents and Turk’s mother steered away from particularly prominent guest stars (relying instead on solid work from Lane Davies, Markie Post, and Hattie Winston). Even the brief Janitor bit, with R. Lee Ermey in what is perhaps a more substantial cameo, is a nice bit of color that provides a first opportunity for Neil Flynn to interact with someone other than Braff.

But when it comes right down to it, J.D.’s side of the story is a problem here, despite featuring a fine example of the kind of parent guest star casting referenced above. To watch John Ritter have so much fun playing Sam Dorian is really quite wonderful, and there’s an understated sense of comic timing here that both connects with J.D.’s personality and makes a fine stamp on the series. Ritter’s comic timing is clearly on display, which makes his tragic passing a few years later all that more tragic. We might, in time, get to the point where his death enters into the Scrubs narrative, but there’s something about revisiting this storyline that was decidedly bittersweet, reveling in a great comic performance but knowing that it would be one of only two appearances for Ritter on the series.

While Ritter’s performance is great here, the problem with J.D.’s storyline is in the voiceovers, and in the extension of those voiceovers into the rants of Dr. Cox. In both cases, the parents theme is over-explained, driving home the same point over and over again without much in the way of narrative justification. It’s a case where J.D. feels too omniscient, his narration connecting too comfortably with storylines that were happening away from the character, and it’s also a case where Dr. Cox’s sense of purpose is too cleanly limited to providing advice to J.D. that just happens to connect directly with the episode’s theme. While these devices can be useful, and the idea of Cox as surrogate father is one that the show will return to frequently in the future, here they feel too disconnected from the real world of the hospital, isolated in order to simplify their meaning.


The result doesn’t undermine Ritter’s strong work, or the general effectiveness of parents as insights into characters’ pasts. However, it does register as an instance in which the constructed nature of early Scrubs episodes (and, on some level, all Scrubs episodes) has the potential to prove distracting if too clearly operating above—rather than within—the narrative.

“My Way Or The Highway” (season 1, episode 20; originally aired 04/16/2002)

Similarly, there’s something inevitable about the introduction of romantic love interests for single lead characters, especially after the show already extinguished any short-term interest in J.D. and Elliot pairing up. While I stand by the argument that there is something brave about rushing and then ending that pairing back in “My Bed Banter & Beyond,” there’s also something to be said for the fact that it means that show now has an opportunity for some fairly easy story development with the introduction of love interests for the two characters.


“My Way Or The Highway” represents the first such effort for Elliot, the beginning of what (spoiler alert) will be—within this season, at least—a quick two-episode arc à la J.D.’s relationship with Alex which began (in a way) in “My Blind Date.” And while we’ll get to the resolution of that arc next week, within this particular episode I simply find Scott Foley’s introduction as Sean Kelly to be a whole lot of fun. Their relationship is enormously silly, built on their attempts to out-neurotic the other through sheer lack of self-confidence, but it plays so well with both of their characters, and Chalke and Foley have a definite chemistry in scenes that play as broad comedy without falling out of the realm of reality.

Their scenes together just work really well, delivering a nice sense of diversity and unpredictability within what is otherwise a highly predictable structure. Foley gets a nice bit of physical comedy on the treadmill, Chalke gets to get dressed up just to be immediately dressed down afterwards, and even Judy Reyes gets to practice her “Wait, seriously?” eyebrow raise as Carla witnesses Elliot and Sean talking about poo for ten minutes. That discussion is so painfully silly, but it’s silly in a way that sort of works with the characters, and reflects their dueling nerves and their impact on their social behaviors. It all makes the eventual conclusion—Elliot finding her self-confidence (read: faking her self-confidence) and forcing him to ask her out—that much more satisfying, creating the foundation for what could be a lasting relationship provided that nothing complicates it in next week’s episode, which could never possibly happen.


As for the other two storylines in the episode, things are more uneven, although there are elements I like here. First off, J.D. and Turk’s battle over whether one of J.D.’s patients should have surgery is most notable for the balcony-set “Surgeon And A Doc” musical interlude and the “Surgery Vs. Medical” West Side Story-riff, two fantasies that have stuck around wi the show’s fans as particularly memorable (and, in the former case especially, foreshadow “My Musical”). However, more subtly, I like that Turk (while overly competitive) is entirely right in this scenario. In fact, he’s the voice of reason in both of these episodes, a role that nicely complicates a character who at other times comes across as a selfish jock. While he may be perhaps a bit too rational here, his speech to J.D. too on-the-nose, it’s still nice to see the character maturing as he gets further into his work, although that will be undone by storylines to come.

The other main storyline, with Dr. Cox and Dr. Kelso battling it out with poor Coffee Nurse Patty caught in the middle, is less successful, if only because we’ve seen this battle before and don’t entirely care about the plight of coffee nurse. It felt like a situation where the writers knew they were pairing off Elliot and Carla, and J.D. and Turk, which left Kelso and Cox to do battle with one another for no other reason than to remind us that the characters exist and that they don’t like each other. We’ll be exploring more of their relationship in the weeks ahead, in particular in the season finale, but this felt like a definite holding pattern for the two of them (although I’ve always enjoyed Ken Jenkins’ reading of “Good cake today” for some reason).


That being said, I liked the details of how some of these storylines connected with one another. While the ABC-Janitor structure often put the Janitor out into his own storyline with J.D., here he’s integrated into the storyline as he advises J.D.’s patients behind his back for no reason other than to mess with him. It’s a simple little bit, less substantial than other janitor storylines, but it works nicely to add some color to J.D.’s exploration of his relationship with his patients. Similarly, one of my favorite moments in the episode is when Carla is arguing with Dr. Cox and providing some context for his behavior in that storyline, but is then pulled away by Elliot to consult regarding her interactions with Sean. It’s a smooth transition from one storyline to the other, a signal that the ABC structure is not as rigid as it might sometimes seem and that it can be adjusted or impacted by the connection between the storylines.

“My Way Or The Highway” doesn’t set out to do much in terms of long-term development beyond the introduction of Foley’s Sean, but there are nonetheless some compelling elements here that reflect the show’s evolution, and provide a solid bridge into next week’s beginning of the end of the season.


Stray observations:

  • I love the way the show doesn’t necessarily call attention to certain things, like the fact that Turk is in his blue scrubs immediately after his argument with his mother—there’s no line that says “Hey, Turk, you’re wearing blue scrubs, that’s weird,” which I feel would be more common on a lesser show.
  • Another favorite Ken Jenkins moment in these episodes is his old timey boxing match with Elliot’s father, and his subsequent decision to grill Elliot (with his second “Let’s go with… Dr. Reid!” moment particularly wonderful).
  • Where are Turk and J.D. from? Elliot’s hometown has been very explicitly discussed, but the show hasn’t spent as much time with Turk and J.D., and while we might have learned this information at some other point in the series it feels vague here. It seems awfully convenient that 
    the intern’s parents would all be able to drop in on such short notice, but then again the place-based location of Sacred Heart has always been somewhat vague (despite clearly filming in L.A.) relative to other, more location-driven medical series.
  • Does it make sense that Sam would know who Elliot was to be able to call her by name? That seemed strange to me on rewatching the episode.
  • “You know, your mother had a beautiful bosom.”
  • “There are no gratuitous winks in the Reid household.”
  • “And that just led right back to poo!”