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Scrubs: “My Student”/“My Tuscaloosa Heart”

Illustration for article titled iScrubs/i: “My Student”/“My Tuscaloosa Heart”
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“My Student” (season 1, episode 17; originally aired 03/05/2002)

As has been evident throughout the first season, Scrubs is a show that loves its lessons, and it’s probably fair to say that they were used heavily in the first season in order to help build a storytelling structure that could be sustainable in the future. Lessons give each episode a clear sense of purpose both for the writers and for the audience, and to this point I feel as though they’ve been an effective part of developing the show’s world and its characters.


However, there comes a point where a single lesson can’t really apply to every character or every storyline, and a point where a diverse range of characters aren’t necessarily going to respond to a particular lesson the same way. “My Student” has characters learning lessons, but I don’t think that we can generalize the lesson into a single bit of voiceover, nor do I think that would be particularly effective.

When writing reviews like this one, I’m always looking for a narrative thread, and “My Student” is a case where there isn’t a clear takeaway to latch onto. The episode opens with a nice one-shot of J.D., Elliot, and Turk entering the hospital, designed to emphasize the routine nature of their day-to-day work and their newfound superiority over incoming medical students, but their paths through the episode are structurally similar but reach fairly different conclusions. While each receives “their” med student, creating a series of character relationships that form the foundation of the episode, we are reaching the point where the characters are on divergent paths as their personality quirks become more fully-formed.


I guess what I’m trying to say is that this is the point where J.D. emerges as a full-on jerk. I don’t hate J.D., and I never reached the point where the character was wholly unlikable, but his inability to put himself in his med student’s shoes here is an indictment of the character on a level that we really haven’t seen to this point. That montage where he goes around trying to convince people that it wasn’t his fault that Josh quit medicine after he effectively told him to quit medicine is somewhat self-aware (with J.D. voiceover-ing in such a way that he knows it’s less than flattering), but it’s also the show exploring what happens when someone makes a mistake—failing to think about how he felt as a med student, and what his mentors have done for him—and has to make amends.

Now, to be clear, the show doesn’t want us to think J.D. is a jerk. It wants us to be disappointed in J.D., to feel that this character we relate with has lost perspective on his own experience. Josh is J.D. on some level, awkward and struggling to complete the most simple of tasks, but he’s also still just a med student, and needs a boost in confidence more than a complete dressing down. That J.D. doesn’t realize this doesn’t make him as much of a jerk as Philip, Elliot’s douchebag med student, and I actually think Philip’s presence here is in part to keep us from judging J.D. too harshly for his mistake. However, it’s tough not to feel that J.D. handles this situation in a way reflective of his generally insular nature, a selfishness that will weave in and out of the characterization throughout the series.


By comparison, of course, the lesson that Elliot learns is that she should be a jerk more often when her med student deserves it, while Turk doesn’t get to learn a lesson because his storyline becomes co-opted by Dr. Cox hitting on his med student, Kristen (played by Kelli Williams, who I last saw on FOX’s Lie To Me). There’s something consistent here about being able to take lessons from your past and carry them into your future as a doctor (or, future relationships in the case of Dr. Cox, given how this theme carries into “My Tuscaloosa Heart”), but the actual lessons feel as though they’re very specific to the characters and where they are in their careers.

In fact, that’s the one main challenge of “My Student”: Because we never see these med students again (in the case of Josh and Philip), they very much seem like perfectly designed tools for the purpose of story development. Kristen is the new love interest for Dr. Cox, Philip is the jerk that Elliot wishes into existence, and Josh is the test of J.D.’s mettle that the writers were interested in creating. That we learn so little else about them doesn’t keep this from being an entertaining episode, and I remain convinced that Adrian Wenner (who plays Philip) has killer comic timing that could have turned him into a recurring character if the show had so desired. However, there is ultimately something ineffectual about the way the med students come and go—while I understand that creating a three-tiered seniority structure would be overwhelming for the narrative, I think an occasional episode featuring med students might have worked.


“My Student” is also notable in retrospect for foreshadowing Scrubs’ ninth season, although there was some discussion last week about whether we really consider season nine a part of the show. Regardless of that debate, though, I would argue the med-student angle worked well in that season, just as the introduction of a new set of interns worked well in the eighth season. The “Teaching Hospital” dynamic definitely faded away in the middle of the show’s run, but it was something the ninth season captured quite effectively (regardless of how we feel about some of the characters within that dynamic, which is a discussion for another day). At the same time, though, it also highlighted the challenge of having characters just starting their medical careers and characters well-established within those careers learning the same lessons — there comes a point where the disparities are too large to apply the same morals, which necessitates a more loosely-defined theme that can be interpreted for each character.

At this stage, though, with the first season entering its third act (and the DVD set reaching its third disc), they’re still feeling out how those lessons will work, and there’s some nice malleability to the theme here; it may keep it from feeling quite as cohesive, but it better connects the theme to individual characters so that they can provide a foundation for future development.


“My Tuscaloosa Heart” (season 1, episode 18; originally aired 03/12/2002)

Technically speaking, “My Tuscaloosa Heart” offers only a direct point of continuity from “My Student” for Dr. Cox, who begins and ends his relationship with Kristen over the course of the episode. However, given what I wrote about J.D. above, we could equally see this as another test of his character, another moment where he feels that he comes up short and has to reflect on how he treats those around him (in this case his patients).


Neither storyline offers “My Tuscaloosa Heart” its title, nor are they particularly memorable in the long term, but I found myself enjoying them more than I had remembered. In particular, the cold open has a really compelling energy to it, a naturalistic tone that feels far removed from the more manic rhythms of subsequent seasons. As J.D. Number Two meets J.D. Number One, and as Elliot and J.D. negotiate for their clipboards, there’s a sort of “slice of life” feel to the scene which doesn’t feel like the start of a particular episode with a particular theme. While the point becomes more clear when we meet Mr. Simon, and J.D. is forced to confront a completely terrible person who also happens to be his patient, the way an episode starts can still be incredibly important to its overall tone. “My Student” begins by clearly setting up its structure, but it’s a bit less fully-formed here, and that seems to benefit the episode.

However, I do think that this is the point where the utility of Dr. Cox’s crush on Carla is revealed to be quite severely limited. His relationship with Kristen being undermined by his baggage from previous relationships is important to the character, as it helps transition him from a superior (who is on a different level from the interns) to someone who is at least in narrative terms equally damaged and searching for himself. While he will never be a true equal, always at a different point in his career, he’s still subject to authority (Kelso), and still working to pull together his personal life based on past mistakes. However, none of this requires Carla, with Jordan capable of fulfilling these needs, and the former simply proves an awkward distraction which the show tells us is important as opposed to really demonstrating it. John C. McGinley does his best to sell it, but I never buy that he actually likes Carla, and that disconnect does weaken the impact of his storyline here. It still humanizes Dr. Cox, with his lonely post-coital plea to Jordan a personal low that does set things up for the character’s arc from this point forward, but the relationship drama limits its effectiveness compared to the stronger “Dr. Cox struggles with his emotions” storyline which will arrive before the season concludes.


As for J.D., this is a simple and effective storyline that works because it has a clear beginning, middle and end. We see J.D. as comfortable with J.D. Number One in the beginning, we see how his interactions with Mr. Simon (and his eventual death) cause him to become self-conscious (and eventually lash out at J.D. Number One as though he, too, were a difficult patient), and then eventually being cleared at the Morbidity and Mortality conference gives him new perspective to realize that J.D. Number One was one of the good ones, and ends the episode nodding off at his bedside. It’s nothing transformative, but it’s a well-told story that in a short period of time gets a beginning, middle, and end across.

The most memorable storyline within “My Tuscaloosa Heart,” of course, is the one where Elliot and Turk go searching for the beginning, middle, and end of Dr. Bob Kelso, or “Robby” if one of their patients is to be believed. The reveal that he used to be a coffee shop musician, playing songs about his “bunny,” is clearly meant to seem inconsistent with the character we’ve seen to this point, but we saw bits and pieces of a more human side of the character in his storyline with Carla in “My Nickname,” and a man who has lived that long would inevitably have various different periods in his life which might diverse from his current personality. However, as Elliot and Turk’s search emphasizes, there is something tantalizing about getting a glimpse into this past, piecing together someone’s history when you only know the person in a single context: While Turk makes fun of her for her interest, and Elliot does try to place it in a more anthropological context, learning that their cruel superior was a vulnerable romantic in his past is just too enticing a notion to ignore.


The show is smart, though, to resist the temptation of literal flashbacks, choosing instead to tell the story largely from Turk and Elliot’s perspective. It’s a light storyline for the two characters, but Sarah Chalke and Donald Faison have a great chemistry, and his teasing is paired nicely with her earnest enthusiasm. And when we eventually reach the end of the episode, and the myth of “Robby” Kelso and Bunny is dismissed with a retelling of Elvis Presley’s life story for Turk and Elliot’s benefit, it’s the audience who gets the one glimpse of the real Bob Kelso as he delivers an acoustic performance of the “title track” of sorts. It’s a wonderful moment for Ken Jenkins, unquestionably vulnerable but undecided in its romanticism given Enid’s phone call halfway through (although note he continues the song despite this, suggesting his love nonetheless remains). It’s still not a complete portrait of a character, even from our perspective where more gaps are filled in than for Turk and Elliot, but it’s still a beautiful end that quite nicely soundtracks the conclusions the other storylines as well.

While not quite monumental, “My Tuscaloosa Heart” is probably one of my favorite episodes in the first season, maintaining a nice rhythm and delivering three solid storylines that work both in isolation and as part of a semi-cohesive whole. Strong individual scenes (like J.D.’s bedside chat with both Turk and Carla, or the swapped-out stethoscopes) marked by a nice sense of comic timing combine with some solid character development to deliver a great example of what a “typical” Scrubs episode is capable of doing when the show is moving at full speed.


Stray observations:

  • Adrian Renner, who played Philip, is now primarily a writer, where he has worked on My Boys (which I always liked), Mad Love (which was entirely forgettable, although notable for reuniting him with Sarah Chalke), and now… Whitney. So there’s that.
  • DJ Qualls, meanwhile, never quite capitalized on his Road Trip “fame,” largely piling up guest star credits—with highlights including Lost and Breaking Bad—before booking a regular gig on TNT’s Memphis Beat.
  • I’m curious to know more about how often Bill Lawrence and company initially thought they’d be using Christa Miller’s Jordan—obviously, given her marriage to Lawrence, they have more access than if she weren’t married to him, but I’m wondering if her exit from The Drew Carey Show (which came in 2002) became clear at some point around when these stories were being broken, making her increased involvement possible.
  • I don’t know why, but the “Wahh-Wahh” quacking routine Philip uses to annoy Elliot always cracks me up.
  • These two episodes offer some fun writing credits, in that Debra Fordham co-wrote both episodes and Janae Bakken and Mark Stegemann swapped out co-writer/story by credits. The same three writers are thus responsible for both episodes, which would be an interesting story break.
  • Fun, entirely unrelated to Scrubs, fact: “My Tuscaloosa Heart” aired on my birthday. I have absolutely no memory of what I was doing on my 16th birthday.
  • “Hey Number Two!”
  • “I heard some of your songs and I think they’re extraordinary!”
  • “Gotta be boobs somewhere.”

Next week: A bittersweet paternal introduction, and we celebrate “Female Lead’s First Guest Star Love Interest.”


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