By Sinead Hunt
To most of my peers, Scrubs represents an entirely forgettable, one-dimensional sitcom from the early 2000s. But given that it was the first sitcom I had ever laid my eyes upon, it’s no wonder that my pubescent self found the show invariably hilarious and the characters unwaveringly winning—after all, I had nothing to compare it to. Recently, for reasons relating entirely to indolence, I decided to go back and watch Scrubs in its entirety to see if it still holds up.
Interestingly enough, Scrubs is frequently praised by real-life doctors for its depictions of work and life in a hospital setting. Bill Lawrence, in an attempt to ground the show in reality, would send his writers out each week to interview practicing physicians. In fact, many of the scenes in the show are inspired by the lived experiences of doctors and other healthcare professionals.
For instance, there is a scene in the pilot in which JD attempts to perform a paracentesis on his patient. The procedure goes horribly awry when JD is unable to stop the excess fluid from spurting from the oblivious patient’s distended belly. The physical comedy of this scene is heightened by the knowledge that it was inspired by the real-life experiences of Dr. Paul Pirralgia. Dr. Pirralgia attended Brown Medical School with creator Bill Lawrence’s best friend, Dr. Johnathan Doris (As a brief side note, Dr. Johnathan Doris served as medical advisor to the show, and accordingly Zack Braff, his nickname on set was “The Real JD”). If you manage to look past the cartoonish dream sequences, you will find a depiction of medical residency that is notably prosaic. While other shows may capture the heroism of doctors saving lives amidst an unrelenting onslaught of tragedy and calamity (cough Grey’s Anatomy), Scrubs finds levity in the day-to-day lives of doctors and nurses.
Given that Scrubs was inspired by the real-life friendship between Bill Lawrence and Dr. Johnathan, it is no wonder that Turk and JD’s friendship is so emotionally resonant. Part of what was revolutionary about Scrubs was its unabashed celebration of male friendship and camaraderie. Anyone who has watched the show can tell that J.D’s transient romantic relationships take a back seat to the preeminence of his friendship with Turk. In fact, one might argue that male friendship is the focal point of the show.
Turk and JD’s friendship is so central to the premise of the show that it is frequently used to measure the passage of time. The physicality of their friendship is particularly noteworthy. Turk and JD are never afraid to express their platonic affection for one another through physical touch, whether it be a pat on the shoulder or a comforting hug. This is particularly laudable for a time in which men refrained from any physical expression of affection, lest they be branded as “gay.” In a decade where the public understood masculinity through a heteronormative matrix, Scrub’s depiction of affectionate and emotionally nuanced male friendship belied many preconceived notions about the very definition of manhood.
However, as I continued to watch, I realized that running throughout the show is an insidious undercurrent of homophobic hyper-masculinity. JD is emotionally expressive, and as a result, is often pejoratively called girls’ names. Turk, however, embodies the ideal of “hyper masculine stoicism,” repressing his emotions and coping with stress through expressions of physical violence and domination, particularly in the arena of sports. Moreover, JD and Turk are frequently subject to intense speculation about the nature of their friendship, implying that two men cannot be friends without having their heterosexuality called into question. As much as Scrubs is revolutionary in its portrayal of male friendship, it also reinforces harmful and prohibitive gender stereotypes.