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Genre jumping pays off

'Scrubs' combines slapstick, devastating drama

You wouldn’t expect many shows to be audacious enough to reinvent one of television’s classic half-hours, “MASH,” and only a few would expect to succeed.

However, critics and devoted viewers have found that from its very first stitch to tonight’s 100th episode, “Scrubs” has combined slapstick and sophisticated comedy with earnest and devastating drama like no other medical show since the days of Hawkeye.

“I kind of thought of ‘Scrubs,’ as the new ‘MASH,’ ” says TV Guide senior critic Matt Roush. “It never became a sensation like ‘MASH,’ but ‘Scrubs,’ I think, will go on and have a reputation that could live on.”

Though “Scrubs” diverts from the “MASH” formula in a few areas — it’s not set in a war zone — series creator Bill Lawrence deadpans that he “cribbed” straight from the 1970s classic. Like “MASH,” “Scrubs” is fearless in aiming for laughter and tears alike.

“If you look at ‘MASH,’ they were able to get the best of both,” Lawrence says. “Because they were in a hospital setting, they had this added ammo that you believed every character on ‘MASH,’ and, hopefully, every character on ‘Scrubs,’ really cares. … You are able to do some really silly comedy without indicting the characters.”

Still, the idea for “Scrubs” didn’t arise from a TV Land “MASH” marathon, but, rather, conversations that Lawrence had with old friends who became doctors.

“On American television, we like our doctors to be very serious,” Lawrence says. “We like them to yell ‘stat’ a lot and bust through doors. One thing I noticed about these guys was that they were all the same goofballs I knew when I grew up with them.”  

As his friends told stories of their days fresh out of medical school, a CT scan went off around Lawrence’s head.

“Imagine it’s your first day of work at any new job and how nervous you are, (with) the added pressure that you’re supposed to be responsible for people living or dying,” Lawrence says.

The concept was golden, and remained so as the characters matured. Even as the characters age, they’re still learning.

“The minute that ‘Scrubs’ completely grows up, it’s over,” Roush says.

With its raison d’etre in place, the surpassing achievement of “Scrubs” was one of tone. Laying the groundwork, Lawrence chose to employ a single-camera show at a time when network comedies rarely did that.

“Every time someone had tried to do a medical sitcom,” Lawrence recalls, “it seemed like fake actors pretending to be doctors. … One of the things we thought early on was (if) we occasionally showed actual patients and actual people dying and things with emotional stakes, working in single camera, that it might be enough to combine with broad comedy.”

The other key element in the evolution of “Scrubs” followed the decision to tell stories principally from the point of view of Dr. John “J.D.” Dorian, played by then-unknown Hollywood hyphenate Zach Braff. Lawrence and his staff struggled to keep Braff’s voiceover from becoming a mere crutch for story exposition.

The brainstorm: Put J.D.’s daydreams onscreen as well.

“What we decided was, rather than have it be a monotone narration, if it’s going to be told through Zach’s voice, we’re going to do everything through J.D.’s eyes,” Lawrence says. “It opened up a visual medium that those of us as comedy writers were not used to.”

The attention to detail infused every character on “Scrubs,” from series regulars Braff, Sarah Chalke, Donald Faison, Neil Flynn, Ken Jenkins, John C. McGinley and Judy Reyes, to even the one-line guests, all of whom are precisely drawn characters.

“Somebody brought up that 99% of sitcoms expect (minor characters) to deliver exposition,” Lawrence says. “They’re there only to make the main characters funny. We wanted them to all be oddly and weirdly funny in their own right.”

While the future of “Scrubs” beyond 2007 is cloudy, its legacy is much less so. Roush says appreciation for “Scrubs” will grow in its afterlife.

“Because of its creativity, ‘Scrubs’ has earned its place among the really significant shows of our time, if not all time,” Roush says. “I don’t know if the show makes history the way ‘MASH’ does, but it sure makes for some good times.”

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