A patient with a “front butt” is presented at a medical convention. A West Side Story spoof pits surgeons against doctors of internal medicine. A surgeon rips his own heart out with his bare hands to save a patient. These may not seem like moments from television’s most accurate medical show, but they are.
Despite being a comedy featuring outlandish daydreams lived out on screen, Scrubs is most often regarded as the most true-to-life medical based television show by doctors and other healthcare professionals. From the realistic portrayals of the humdrum of day-to-day work to the fiscally stingy chief of medicine, the series expresses “exactly what a resident feels, day in and day out.”
The reason Scrubs feels so true to life is that it is rooted in real experiences; series creator Bill Lawrence initially based J.D. (Zach Braff) on a friend of his after years of hearing exciting stories about the guy’s residency. Dr. Jonathan Doris also stuck around and served as the show’s medical consultant for the duration of the show.
To compete with the on-screen dramatics of once-in-a-lifetime diagnoses made weekly on Grey’s Anatomy or House M.D., Scrubs found a loophole to punch up J.D.’s life without compromising on the truth of the hospital setting. Instead of making wild and rare medical discoveries, J.D. lives out all of his most raucous and ridiculous daydreams.
The fantasies serve two main purposes: they add excitement without losing the element of realism, and they define J.D.’s character in a unique way beyond his real-life interactions. By diving completely into his head, we get insight into J.D.’s crippling insecurities, unwaning immaturities, and how he deals with difficult emotions like guilt.
Throughout the nine seasons of Scrubs, J.D. constantly struggles with his self-esteem and insecurities. A daydream in the season one episode “My Fifteen Minutes” perfectly encapsulates this ever-recurring theme. After J.D. and Turk (Donald Faison) save the life of a local news cameraman, they are momentarily regaled as heroes.
Upon returning to Sacred Heart Hospital, the duo is met by Dr. Kelso, who’s giving a statement to a large crowd of reporters. The fanfare sends J.D. into a daydream, but instead of seeing himself as a hero, he’s self-relegated to the sidekick position alongside Turk. “Holy inferiority complex, Batman!”
Despite being continually frustrated by the hospital’s best efforts to break him down, J.D. refuses to give up his childlike sensibilities. It motivates him to be a better doctor and keeps him from going off the deep end when things go catastrophically wrong. In the season two episode “My Dream Job,” an old friend from college makes an offhand comment about J.D. working his dream job and he’s immediately transported to a daydream revealing his truest career desires. Being a doctor was always J.D.’s goal in life, but his dream job?
Once again indulging his inner child, J.D. sits behind a desk completely made of candy and a nameplate indicating his true dream job: Chocolate King. Throughout the show, J.D. is repeatedly chided for his immaturity but beyond giving us hilarious moments like this one, it consistently makes him a better doctor. Especially when compared to the severity of his mentor Dr. Cox, J.D.’s engagement with his emotions allows him to connect and empathize with his patients on a deeper level.
Although he tries his best to ward off unethical thoughts, especially about his patients’ personal lives, J.D. still falters sometimes and makes ethical mistakes. More often than not, this is in the form of depraved sexual daydreams. In “My T.C.W.,” J.D. fantasizes about making out with the titular T.C.W., or Tasty Coma Wife. “Smokin’ hot” Jamie Moyer’s husband has been in a coma for two years, and J.D. can’t keep his mind from drifting to the possibility of them getting together. Immediately, however, the husband awakens to give J.D. stink eye.
On a different show, a doctor and the spouse of a comatose patient probably would’ve just hooked up right there, as torrid romances like these often drive the plots of medical dramas. Scrubs won’t go that far, instead imploring J.D. to wait until the funeral to pursue a relationship with Jamie. Even so, his guilt is revisited by the reanimation of her husband multiple times similarly throughout this multi-episode plot arc.
Although the above examples are effective in defining J.D. as a doctor and as a person, his best fantasies are those that serve no purpose but to humor the audience. In nearly every episode, a seemingly innocuous comment sends J.D. into bizarre daydreams. There’s Turk as a leprechaun (set off by Carla saying “Irish brother”), the infamous Love Train and even a harmonious fart performance.
With such a variety of uses, Scrubs‘ fantasy sequences are one of the most effective and unique aspects of the beloved sitcom. In diving into the ridiculous world of J.D.’s head, Scrubs was able to successfully walk the fine line between medical workplace accuracy and fast-paced comedy.