Published on June 19th, 2020 | by Christopher McKay0
The Best Episode of Scrubs Was Also Its Saddest
Scrubs was one of the most popular sitcoms of the 2000s. But it only really found itself when it got in touch with its emotions.
It’s sometimes hard to pinpoint when a sitcom hits its stride. With more and more shows being made for continuous bingeing, there is less of a need for a show to make its big impression in the first handful of episodes. Some popular sitcoms like The Office, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Parks and Recreation are renowned for starting off on uneven footing before finding exactly what it is that made them work. The normalcy of this is part of what made Scrubs so special; despite a somewhat awkward pilot, the medical comedy that became a defining sitcom of the early 2000s managed to hit its mark by its fourth episode, “My Old Lady.”
“My Old Lady” established what Scrubs was going to be: a funny show about new doctors and their insecurities, coupled with strong doses of realism to ground it all. The episode begins with the trusty narrator and protagonist JD noting that statistically, one of every three patients admitted to the hospital dies there. The audience then learns that Scrubs’ three central young doctors, JD, Elliot, and Turk each have a new patient, and the episode’s narrative is established: one of these patients will die by the end, and that doctor will for the first time face the harsh reality all doctors regularly face. But who will it be?
JD’s patient and the titular character, Mrs. Tanner, takes up most of the episode’s running time. An old woman with a big family, she is friendly to JD and immediately encourages him to assert his authority as a doctor when she senses he is nervous. Mrs. Tanner is in relative good health, but needs to start dialysis or her kidneys will fail. In true Scrubs visual gag fashion, JD must sign for the delivery of a ton of bricks that hit him when Mrs. Tanner bluntly tells him that she is refusing the simple treatment in order to die.
Just as Mrs. Tanner’s wishes go against what JD believes being a doctor means, Elliot and Turk’s patients bring out their fears of doctoring too. As a surgeon, Turk is hesitant to get to know patients as any more than their conditions since he will be the person cutting them open and hoping things go right. He surrenders and becomes friends with David, a young man with a hernia, when he realizes David is bored, scared, and alone in the hospital and needs a friend. Meanwhile, Elliot is scared to treat Mrs. Guerrero, her patient who only speaks Spanish, because she is unsure of her decision-making skills as a new doctor and cannot communicate directly with her patient. These insecurities are heightened when David’s and Mrs. Guerrero’s routine procedures expose more serious health issues.
Doctors routinely rate Scrubs as one of the most realistic medical shows, and that is on full display with the relationships between doctors and patients in “My Old Lady.” Turk feels happy that he has made David feel better, but then is brutally reminded by Chief of Medicine, Dr. Kelso, that patients are in the hospital because they need doctors–not friends. This is again pointed out when Elliot runs from the room instead of giving Mrs. Guerrero bad news, and Nurse Carla states that what the patient needs most is “Her doctor to tell her something, anything.” JD stays at the hospital after hours to try to convince Mrs. Tanner to change her mind, but she is unmoved. She says she has lived a full life, but encourages him to take some of his own advice and do something, maybe go on a picnic, or even just lay on the grass and do nothing every once in a while.
“My Old Lady” does two important things well: it establishes its characters and their flaws in an organic way, and blends the humour and heart Scrubs became known for. The challenges the three main characters face in this early episode follow them throughout the series, even as they learn and grow. With Mrs. Tanner, JD is faced with his first patient that he really can’t help. Turk struggles with the line between patients and friends for the first time, and Elliot’s inability to be a comforting presence for her patients is established in this episode.
The episode features some highly unconventional moments for a Network sitcom. A serious conversation with Dr. Cox telling JD that all medicine is just stalling death cuts to a scene where JD loses a game of Connect Four to the Grim Reaper; JD even smiles and says “Pretty sneaky, Death,” when he sees the winning diagonal move and know he’s been beat. Elliot deciding to run from her patient’s room results in her breaking down crying in front of a vending machine when she tries to choose a drink.
While Scrubs is technically a sitcom, it always used its humour as more of a coping mechanism rather than simply demonstrate that the characters or situations are funny (with the notable exceptions of Dr. Cox and the Janitor). “My Old Lady” is a funny episode, but also a sad one. It only took four episodes for Scrubs to air its first one without a happy ending; it ends with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which then devolves into a heart monitor flat-line as all three patients die.
The shocked faces of JD, Elliot, and Turk as they realize their best efforts weren’t enough are the kind of emotions that would come to ground the show for the rest of its nine seasons. However, all is not lost. JD’s narration naturally closes out the episode, stating that as long as you learn something from a bad day, you will get through all your bad days. The episode then ends on an uplifting note, as JD, Elliot, and Turk are all seen to now be better, more confident doctors, before going to lie on the grass and do nothing together.
“My Old Lady” accomplished a nearly impossible task by encapsulating the whole heart of Scrubs into its twenty-two minute running time. On IMDb, it is the highest-rated episode of Scrubs’ first season, and rightfully so. In the eighth season finale, which many fans consider to be the ‘proper’ series finale of the show, Mrs. Tanner makes a reappearance to ask JD (in his mind), “Did you ever go on that picnic? Make sure you do.” Her presence at the end of the show reiterates how her time and death in the hospital helped make JD the doctor he became. And it illustrated just how much “My Old Lady” shaped Scrubs to be the long-lasting, hilarious and heart-breaking sitcom it is.