Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I'm No Superman - thoughts on the season 8 finale of Scrubs




This special hour-long episode which brought season 8 to a close, also bids goodbye to series lead J.D. Dorian (Zach Braff) and was intended to serve as a possible series finale as well.

Scrubs has never been a runaway ratings hit, but it was one of the first single-camera comedy shows, and one of the best. It managed to combine character comedy, surreal humour (both in fantasy sequences and real life) and poignant moments of strong, hones emotion in a particularly effective way. Set in Sacred Heart Hospital, Scrubs doesn't avoid the painful parts of the job, and still it manages to be wacky, funny and joyful too. It's a very impressive balancing act, though in recent seasons it's not always been able to get the ingredients quite right. Season 8 has been very enjoyable on the whole, however, give or take a few less inspired outings.

So let's take a look at how this farewell to Zach Braff was constructed narratively.

The episode, written and directed by show creator Bill Lawrence, does not go for the big shock or spectacle. It focuses very tightly on the saying goodbye-theme. This means that it's not a big, high-concept episode like the musical one or the homage to the Wizard of Oz, but it's centered by some very real, recognizable emotions. And it resolves a number of lingering plot strands and relationships with regards to J.D.

In short, it's a totally character-centric finale, and as such it's full of pay-offs and callbacks which long-time fans of the series will definitely enjoy.

The episode has quite a number of plotlines developing throughout:

- Eliott (Sarah Chalke) sneak-moving in with J.D. by bringing her furniture and stuff over in secret;
- J.D. expecting a huge send-off from everyone at the hospital (which is basically the A story of the episode);
- Turk (Donald Faison) giving J.D. the big goodbye gesture way too soon, so they have to keep that initial 'goodbye intensity' up all day each time they meet;
- J.D. being confronted by the Janitor (Neil Flynn) once more about the penny he stuck in the door in the pilot episode;
- Dr. Kelso (Ken Jenkins) deciding to get back into being a doctor, but no longer at the hospital and no longer as an administrator;
- J.D. trying to get Dr. Cox (John C. McGinley) to finally admit he likes him before he leaves the hospital;
- J.D. dealing with an elderly female patient who turns out to have Huntingdon's disease, and with her son who now has to face the possibility he carries the same (genetic) disease;
- And a few minor elements such as Jordan (Christa Miller) saying goodbye to J.D., Carla (Reyes) finally getting an answer about whether Turk loves her more than J.D. or vice versa and Ted (Sam Lloyd) getting thoughts stuck in his head.

As you can see, that's a lot of story material to work with, yet it's all thematically related. Even the medical plotline is worked into J.D.'s psychological state. The decision of the son, Dan, not to have the test for Huntingdon's done yet because he doesn't want his future to be closed off and determined by a bad test result, inspires J.D. to accept that his future is still open and free at the end of the episode - though I must say I didn't quite feel the link between these two elements to work.

Strangely enough though, the episode is fairly short - less than 40 minutes of actual material, the remaining time at the end taken up by outtakes.

Structurally, the episode is interesting because it starts on a high (J.D.'s arrival at the hospital and the big goodbye moment with Turk). And things go steadily downhill from there, as J.D. doesn't get what he want (a huge send-off by everyone) in the hospital - though he does get a few warm personal goodbyes).

The first half of the episode is all about J.D. waiting for people to say goodbye to him and make a big show of his leaving. This culminates in a midpoint where the huge banner Turk made for him has already been usurped not once but twice to say goodbye to other people (including Dr. Kelso).

The midpoint causes J.D. to decide to alter his approach: if people don't give him what he want, he'll go and ask for it - and especially from Perry Cox, who has already brushed him off with a 'sorry, no can do'-speech.

But this approach only leads to more disappointment and Cox-fueled humiliation. J.D. also is faced with Elliot and Turk simultaneously apologizing for respectively moving in with him behind his back and saying goodbye too soon. There are a few warm moments with Carla and the Janitor (J.D. finally learns his name - or so he thinks), before J.D. finally sees his dream come true and gets to hear Perry's real feelings towards him when he scolds new intern Sunny for disparaging J.D. - a great moment which is both truly touching and very funny when J.D. forces Perry into a hug and tells him he smells of a father figure.

This last scene is actually a great example of NOT using subtext for a change: Perry states his feelings forcefully and clearly, as does J.D., and it feels completely right. And it also elevates the effectiveness of the subtext of Cox's usual insulting tirades against J.D.

Of course, there must be some sort of big communal goodbye to the star of the series in the episode, and Bill Lawrence falls back on J.D.'s hyperactive imagination to come up with a very original and poignant scene where J.D., reminiscing about 'the people we let into our life', meets a host of characters from past episodes (plus a few current ones like Ted and his Peons and Todd) as he walks to the exit. These include his brother, past girlfriends, colleagues, patients (including a few deceased ones)... It's a scene particularly rich for long-time fans, and it has tons of call-backs to previous episodes.

When J.D. reaches the exit, all these 'spectres of episodes past' vanish, and he looks towards the future, seeing it projected on the big banner Turk made for him. It includes J.D. and Elliott getting married, christmases spent with Turk, Carla and Dr. Cox, J.D.'s son getting engaged to Turk's daughter and so on. It's a happy future, and while it's totally imaginary, J.D. tells us there's no reason why his fantasies couldn't come true - just this once.

There's not a lot of big external conflict in the episode - the main drive is J.D. wanting to see his expectations met. It doesn't really happen, but he achieves closure on a personal level and leaves the hospital a better man and a more complete human being. Looking for external validation, he instead discovers he doesn't need it anymore.

The episode is a warm, emotional and funny send-off for J.D., which shows us how much the character has grown AND how much he has remained the same over the years (he's still infuriatingly immature some of the time, but it's no longer the core of who he is). The closure with regards to the simmering long-time subplots or running gags is extremely satisfying.

It's not an episode to recommend to Scrubs virgins, as they'll miss too many references and recurring jokes. But on its own terms, it's a very succesful goodbye to one of television comedy's most endearing lead characters.

(FYI: there's still talk of a possible 9th season being produced, and even the possibility that Braff will return to the series occassionally is being discussed seriously. But if this doesn't come to pass, the series went out on a high note.)

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