Scrubs Goes Under The Knife

Has any television series ever spent more time on life support than Scrubs? Added to the NBC Thursday lineup back when that still meant something, the quirky hospital show seemed to be on the doorstep of extinction every spring, but always survived. When NBC finally figured it had wrung everything out of Scrubs that it could, ABC pounced and aired what was billed as an eighth and finally final season earlier this year.

As it was originally set up as a finale season, the eighth year of Scrubs (just released on DVD) was set up to bring to an end the saga of John "J.D." Dorian (Zach Braff), who we originally met as a goofy young doctor with a rich inner life who could never quite manage the sobriety that goes along with the job, or stay in a committed grown-up relationship with Elliot (Sarah Chalke). As the season progressed, the sense that we had watched J.D. truly mature deepened, and there was a surprising amount of tenderness that went into his departure from Sacred Heart Hospital.

But nothing ever dies in television, not even in a hospital, and Scrubs will live on in 2010 in a dramatically different form, even though Braff and Chalke have left the main cast. Braff has agreed to come back for a few transitional episodes, and both John C. McGinley (Cox) and Donald Faison (Turk) are still around, but the new Scrubs will be primarily set among the world of medical students, with the hospital as a secondary location. The young stars of the revamped series are Kerry Bishe, Dave Franco, and Michael Mosley (other students may yet be cast in less key roles), and if that doesn't excite you, remember there was a time when you didn't know who Braff was either.

Major cast changes are common with any workplace series, and hospital shows seem especially susceptible (look at the revolving door on Grey's Anatomy, which is only half as old as Scrubs). But what Scrubs is trying is quite different, essentially keeping the old name and a couple of old characters, and changing everything else, most notably the main setting. This is closer to what would typically be called a spinoff, as when Frasier moved to Seattle and the show his character was on became Frasier instead of Cheers.

But ABC, which has had chronic sitcom problems ever since Tim Allen hung up his power tools, is hoping that the familiarity of the Scrubs name will keep audiences hooked. It also helps that Cox and Turk will be back, now playing instructors at a medical school (Turk never struck me as a born teacher, but I suppose you never know). The key relationships on the original Scrubs all involved interactions with J.D., but since Cox was always seen through J.D.'s eyes as imperious, demanding, and remote, the transition to seeing him as a professor could work naturally.

While the school will act as the primary setting for the series, medical students do have to spend plenty of time in hospitals, and that's where J.D's familiar Sacred Heart will come in. These visits to the original setting will act as vehicles to get former series regulars such as Braff, Chalke, Judy Reyes (Carla) and Ken Jenkins (Kelso) into the picture. It is possible these old favorites won't be seen after this season (Braff is signed for six additional episodes), but if the new Scrubs is a success, the show should be able to stand on its own feet with its new stars by next fall; and if viewers don't buy the revamped version, it won't matter anyway.

While viewers will be most pleased to see Faison and McGinley, it also can't be ignored that one other element will link the two versions of Scrubs: showrunner Bill Lawrence. He was key to setting the unique tone of Scrubs, a show that at its best combined the most groanworthy juvenile gags with real pathos, as it depicted J.D's struggle to put his essential goofball nature aside to become a better boyfriend and doctor. Braff and Lawrence often came across as being joined at the hip, so it will be interesting to see the creator's sensibility filtered through new actors.

Here's hoping that the revamped Scrubs succeeds. It can be a good companion piece to Better Off Ted, and frankly, I wasn't ready to say goodbye to Cox. The series will return in early 2010.