Tuesday, June 28, 2005

See, a Synonym for "Neophyte" Is . . .

Just finished going through the first season of Scrubs on DVD, and can't recommend it highly enough. I rarely catch it in "real-time," and had forgotten about how deftly, even from the first episode, they were able to juggle and balance absurdist humor with relatively complicated emotional plots. Last month I watched the first season of Arrested Development, and since I often see both shows referred to as "the best comedies on television" I was kind of comparing the two as I watched the Scrubs episodes. And what struck me was how similar and different their approaches really are.

Both sitcoms use absurdist, "wacky" humor to great effect. But AD grounds its flights of fancy in reality, whereas on Scrubs, most of the absurdist moments are completely imaginary. So, on AD you might see a grown man so frightened of his mother that he jumps through and shatters a sliding glass door when he so much as glimpses her. Now, that same moment on Scrubs would most likely be imaginary, not real; it would take place in JD's head. I'm not here to argue that one approach is better than another, but I did think it interesting that they each make use of a similar comedic philosophy, if you will, so differently.

But the biggest difference, and the one that, for me, makes Scrubs the more rewarding and, in the end, better, show, is how the show deals with emotional content. AD makes some half-hearted stabs at the notion that loyalty to family is important, but really the whole ethos of the show is built around the comedy, not the emotion. There are no real morals, or emotional truths being laid out. Just gags. And that's OK, no it's great -- we need shows like AD. We need shows that are just about the funny, and not about the tender, emotional moments that so many shows are built around. TV is littered with sitcoms that attempt to treat their characters in real, emotional ways that fail miserably. They are the rule, not the exception.

The truth is, that balance, between comedy and "drama," is very hard to maintain--especially when the comedy in question is of a more absurdist slant. Which is what makes Srubs so remarkable. The dramatic moments they deal with are treated honestly and often painfully, and yet they are still able to keep the show from ever getting sappy or treacly. Part of this lies in the way that they subvert expectations. There is a gentle cynicism about the show -- for example in the way that it looks at medicine as nothing but a stopgap measure against the tragedy of death that awaits everyone.

Take a look at the instant-classic episode "My Old Lady." It starts with an interesting, if slightly stale-smelling, gambit. We are told that, apart from the maternity wards, one out of every three patients that enters a hospital will die there. And, of course, we are introduced to three patients -- one for each of our primary characters. And for the entire episode we are waiting to see which one will die. But the twist at the end is where we see how seriously the show is willing to treat its premise and characters. All three patients die, and we are reminded that there are no guarantees, and that death is not the rare event, but the only one that never fails.

It's this kind of writing that makes the show work so well for me, this so well-handled treatment of both comedy, laugh-out-loud-funny, wacky, silly comedy, and real human drama. I'm not sure any show on television is currently combining them better. Well, maybe Gilmore Girls.

Until Whenever

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