Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And yes, there will be spoilers:
From the start, Scrubs has always been more than a sitcom. The medical comedy premiered 20 years ago this month and it’s still revered today, due at least partially to its unparalleled ability to balance laughs with melodrama. As early as its fourth episode, Scrubs never shied away from making its audience emotional. In “My Old Lady,” J.D. (Zach Braff) is treating Mrs. Tanner, an older woman who’s crossed everything off her bucket list and knows it’s her time to pass; Turk (Donald Faison) operates on a young baseball fan who just wanted someone in the hospital to treat him like a person instead of a patient; and Elliot (Sarah Chalke) has to find a way to communicate with a patient who’s terrified of death and can’t speak English. A voiceover at the beginning of the episode warns us that if you don’t include the maternity ward or the emergency room, one out of three patients admitted to the hospital will die. But by the end of this episode, each of the young doctors is forced to reckon with death as all three of their patients die.
The alternation between J.D.’s ridiculous fantasy sequences and these genuinely heart-wrenching moments is what makes Scrubs so unique and popular to this day. Its fans know that regardless of how funny an episode may be, there’s always the possibility of heaviness waiting around the corner. The emotional and comedic complement each other perfectly in Scrubs, but that’s never more clear than in the episodes featuring Brendan Fraser as Ben, Dr. Cox’s brother-in-law.
Ben’s a dopey guy from the get-go; he talks in silly voices, terrorizes his sister Jordan, and always carries a Polaroid to capture unsuspecting victims in candid moments. When Ben first arrives in Season 1, Dr. Cox and J.D.’s relationship is just starting to really develop. The gruff and tough attending has taken a vague liking to the new intern, yet with J.D.’s eagerness and desperate need for validation he would never let him know this. But when Dr. Cox assigns J.D. to take care of Ben, it’s a way to show he trusts him more than he’s able to express explicitly.
When complications arise from a simple construction injury, the two doctors suspect something more sinister is wrong with Ben. Through this two-episode storyline, Dr. Cox shows he’s more than just a hard-ass with an anger management problem; he loves Ben and is terrified of the leukemia ravaging his best friend—no, his only friend. Through treating Ben together, J.D. and Dr. Cox become even closer and for the first time, Dr. Cox is able to admit he’s scared too. By the end of these episodes in Season 1, Ben is in remission and we’re brought back to classic Scrubs comedy with a joke and a happy ending.
But Fraser returns once more in Season 3 for one of the series’ highest-rated episodes, “My Screw Up.” In this episode, Ben’s back from an “I beat cancer!” trip around the world for the first birthday of Jordan and Dr. Cox’s son, Jack. In all his time away, he hasn’t seen a doctor once. Despite J.D.’s insistence that he has too many patients, including an old man with an undiagnosed heart problem, Dr. Cox leaves Ben in his care anyway. Upon his return, J.D. informs Dr. Cox that the patient went into cardiac arrest and wasn’t able to be resuscitated. As Dr. Cox becomes enraged and starts blaming J.D. for the death, Ben stands by, defending J.D. and reminding Dr. Cox he had too many people to care for—but it means nothing to the distraught and guilt-stricken Dr. Cox.
“My Screw Up” is all about guilt and the deeply human need to rationalize the irrational hard truths of life. Dr. Cox works for days on end, sleeping sitting up in the waiting room, and not speaking to J.D. All the while, Ben follows him around, trying to help him through the spiraling breakdown he’s going through. Finally, Ben is able to convince Dr. Cox to apologize to J.D., reminding him that the patient’s death wasn’t truly his fault. Although deep down he already knew this, the reassurance means everything to J.D. And with that, it seems like Dr. Cox is on his way to recovering from the crushing guilt that’s been plaguing him.
As the episode wraps up, Ben and Dr. Cox are walking through a park when Ben reminds him one final time to let go of the guilt and forgive himself for what happened this week. When Dr. Cox asks where Ben’s signature camera is, J.D. appears behind him and asks the question that could bring any Scrubs fan to tears: “Where do you think we are?” Suddenly it’s all too clear the patient’s death that devastated Dr. Cox wasn’t the nameless old man, but Ben. It’s not Jack’s birthday party but instead Ben’s funeral that they’re attending.
This shocking end is so perfectly done that the realization of Ben’s death is unbelievably painful and jarring. Appearing in just three of the series’ 182 episodes, Fraser is truly unforgettable here. Charismatic and endearing, his death is the catalyst for so much growth in Dr. Cox, J.D., and even Jordan. His goofy schticks and ability to instantly soften the harsh Dr. Cox make him one of Scrubs most memorable characters. Even now, having watched his tragic arc countless times, I find myself choking up at the emotional blindside.
20 years on, it’s Scrubs’ unrivaled ability to earn just as many tears as laughs that make it one of television’s all-time great series. Never conforming to one genre or tone, Scrubs is irreverent, heartbreaking, romantic, and crassly funny all at once. It broke the boundaries of what a sitcom could look like, and now, so long since the world was first introduced to John Dorian and Sacred Heart Hospital, Scrubs is still a shining example of tying melodrama and comedy together in perfect harmony.
Kristen Reid is a writer, covering television for Paste Magazine, Vulture, and Film School Rejects. She’s been known to spend too much time rewatching her favorite sitcoms, yelling at her friends to watch more TV, and falling in love with fictional characters. You can follow her on Twitter @kreidd for late-night thoughts on whatever she’s bingeing now.
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