Series: Advent Calendar 2016: Holiday TV Episodes
Season 1 Episode 11
"My Own Personal Jesus"
Originally broadcast December 11, 2001
We are coming into the home stretch, now. I only have four more items for my list including today (I'm not going to make you read anything on Christmas day). The rest of the things will (hopefully) not be as long as most of these posts have been, as it's time to just relax and reflect on the year behind us. Today, however, we make our last stop on the heartwarming side of the spectrum (which means this is another long one). You get bonus points if, like me, reading the name of this episode gets that one Depeche Mode song stuck in your head.
What is the show?
Scrubs follows the career of young doctor John 'J.D.' Dorian and his best friend Chris Turk as they work their way through residencies at a busy hospital. The show starts with his first day on the job, and showcases the personalities that make up the hospital's staff. He laughs, he loves, and he learns as the chaotic world of modern medicine keeps him and his friends busy. It somewhat feels like a 20 minute version of Zach Braff's movie Garden State, but with a bit more interesting subject matter. Yeah, it's kind of hipster-ey or emo or whatever we were calling it in the early 2000's, and it can be easy to dismiss it for that. Just get over yourself and enjoy something for once.
It's a pretty successful comedy, but it is also incredibly grounded. Quite a few episodes and plot lines are based on the experiences of real hospital staff. I've only visited hospitals a handful of times in my life, so I can't really know, but at least from an outsider's perspective the show feels incredibly realistic. The doctors, nurses, and other staff are overworked, struggle with moral and ethical dilemmas, and find relationships and personal lives where they can. It isn't overly dramatized or over sexualized, and it doesn't feel exploitative. It does flash to the surreal from time to time, when we get a glimpse of JD's inner thoughts, but those moments are used to emphasize what's happening in the scene, not make fun of it.
The setting and tone really work so well only because the characters are great. Working long hours, under very stressful situations, I'm sure a lot of hospital staffs become like families, and Scrubs takes full advantage of that. JD is taken under the wing of Dr. Cox, played brilliantly by John C. McGinley. He is a mean, loud, insulting, and otherwise terrifying presence in the hospital. At the same time, Dr. Kelso (Ken Jenkins), the chief of medicine is a kind-hearted old man. As it turns out, though, Cox's furious demeanor belies a clear respect and affection for JD, and we soon discover that he may be the only doctor in the place who really cares. Kelso soon makes it clear that his gentle, kindhearted exterior is simply a mask for his apathetic, cynical, and uncaring attitude. Each character, down to the jock surgeon and the scary janitor who constantly bullies JD, has this level of depth and three-dimensionality.
It's always great to see a comedy not derive comedy from incompetence. It can be very easy to make jokes about how bad somebody is at their job. The Office leans heavily on this early on, as it puts a great deal of attention on how awkward and incompetent Michael is. However, that can't sustain a show for long, and The Office only really became compelling when we started to see signs of talent under Michael's awkward shell. Scrubs wastes no time insulting its characters by trying to make them bad at things for cheap laughs. Sure, they can be clumsy, they can make mistakes, and they fail, but those failings are used as character development, not joke development. As a result, Scrubs has characters that you can have faith in. You root for them to succeed, and you cry with them when they fail. You become part of their family.
What is the episode?
The central point of this episode, like most episodes of the show, is to emphasize what life is like for doctors in a hospital. Here we see Turk, the most religiously faithful of the main characters, has a crisis of that very faith as he has to work through the holiday. After being called again and again all night as the emergencies roll in, Turk questions whether there's any meaning left to it all. It's a pretty powerful subject to consider just a few days before the holiday, and it definitely puts into perspective some of these other shows where someone is worried that maybe Santa doesn't exist.
At the same time, we see a pair of stories about birth. A birth is pretty central to the Christmas story, after all, so it's an artful theme to leverage in a holiday episode - especially one set in a hospital. They leverage the theme incredibly well, because there's a lot of subject matter there. We get a juxtaposition between a well-off upper-middle-class couple and a young, poor, single woman (who didn't even know she was pregnant). It becomes a modern "no room at the inn" scenario, which is a classic holiday TV trope.
We also get a glimpse at perhaps the real theme of the episode - the inherent misogyny of the whole process. Systemic sexism is a very real thing, especially in the medical industry (also, let us not forget that this day is about glorifying not the poor, young woman who had to give birth in whatever a manger even is, but the male baby - and his father - that she gave birth to). This episode comes out swinging, throwing out two pretty sexist ideas in as many minutes, and those ideas permeate the rest of the episode. In the same way that the show handles most subjects, they don't force an agenda down our throats - we aren't subjected to a lecture about what's wrong with the system. We are simply shown a slice of (what at least feels like) reality, with all of the goods and bads that come along with it.
Where can you watch it?
The entire series is on Netflix (you can skip the last season or two), and as usual the http://amzn.to/2i0VKyr DVD's and http://amzn.to/2ifCfl7 episodes are on Amazon.
This is a powerful episode for me. It can be easy to forget (or ignore) that ultimately Christmas is just another day, and someone still needs to be on call to provide care to those who need it. We give a lot of glory to all of the mythos that surrounds the holiday, but can we not take a moment to sing a carol about the young surgeon who has to work on Christmas so that people who get hurt will still be saved?
I couldn't figure out a good way to transition into the next episode(s). I have 25 episodes of TV shows, and I couldn't think of a single thing in common with the next one. Anyway, it's The Simpsons.