Scrubs' Elliot Reid: Our Overlooked, Underappreciated Neurotic Hero

Sarah Chalke’s doctor speaks for talented but insecure people.

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<I>Scrubs'</i> Elliot Reid: Our Overlooked, Underappreciated Neurotic Hero

If you are a fan of Scrubs and want to talk about great scenes in creator Bill Lawrence’s medical comedy from the aughts, you will probably want to talk about Zach Braff’s narrator/lead John “J.D.” Dorian and his hard-assed, but somehow still likeable, boss-mentor, Dr. Perry Cox (John C. McGinley).

You’ll mention the time Dr. Cox was so overcome with grief when his best friend Ben (guest star Brendan Fraser) succumbed to leukemia that he both wasn’t processing his death and yet, still managed to blame J.D. for it. Or you’ll write think pieces like the one Shea Serrano did for The Ringer in 2019 that recounts a moment from the fifth season where Dr. Cox, who is known for his narcissistic god complex, is completely wrecked when his screw-up kills three people and only J.D. can reel him back in. Or you’ll simply mention any number of other times that Dr. Cox stood there with his hands behind his head or sucked on his teeth in exasperation over something J.D. or another staff member did that was not up to his know-it-all, perfectionist standards.

Or maybe you’ll think back on the decades-long bromance between J.D. and surgeon Chris Turk (Donald Faison). You’ll praise the realness of their conversations about everything from the movie Fletch and the TV show Sanford and Son to ones about race, growing older, losing relatives, becoming parents and (sometimes semi) functioning adults. The actors themselves even do it in Fake Doctors, Real Friends, the podcast they started during the quarantine period of the coronavirus pandemic. There, they recap episodes and talk to others involved with the mythology and making of Scrubs.

How appropriate that y’all are overlooking one of the true standouts of this series, though; the character who spoke for all talented women who have no confidence in said talent: The incomparable and always self-effacing Dr. Elliot Reid (Sarah Chalke).

Thin, blonde and pretty, Elliot entered the series in the pilot as a Type A competitive beast and a potential love interest for J.D.. But we soon learn she is an emotionally unstable mess. During the first season when she’s still a lowly intern, she tells her boyfriend Sean (guest star Scott Foley) that 98-percent of her behavior is motivated by “getting my dad to love me; 2-percent [by] chocolate.” She can also work herself up into a crying fit just by thinking about how she might become her mother. There are frequent references throughout the long-running series that her brother is gay but that it’s just not something her family discusses. She was seventh in her class at medical school, but feels like that’s not a good enough accomplishment.

What Elliot really needed in the show’s first years was a mentor or friend. And although she did eventually find it in Carla Espinosa (Judy Reyes), a nurse who is probably smarter than all the doctors in the entire hospital, the two women spend the earlier episodes at each other’s throats—both on account of Elliot’s natural nervousness and her white girl privilege/innocence to the experiences of a woman of color, and to Carla’s need to degrade Elliot by her looks and call her “stick.” (Side note: One could easily write 1,000 words proclaiming the awesomeness of Carla, but there’s no need in writing any defense of her. That character knows she’s boss).

Elliot sure as hell wasn’t lucky enough like J.D. was to find a champion in Dr. Cox. It takes her until the fifth season to finally stand up to him and call him on his actions toward her. But his nickname for her remains: “Barbie.”

In fact, so many of her career moves were instigated by a man. One boyfriend, Jake (Josh Randall) had to convince her to apply for a fellowship. She got it; even if she was so nervous during the interview that her nose bled. A couple seasons later, her older male patient (David Clennon), who was also a doctor, convinces her to join his private practice (something she’d never considered for herself). In Season 4, she even has to share the title of chief resident with J.D., and there’s a sense that the only reason she got the title is because Dr. Cox just wanted to stick it to his mentee (but it is a nice touch that she gets the official title of chief resident and the slight pay bump while he is known as co-chief resident and is paid less).

But Elliot’s biggest career decision might actually be how she defied a man: Her father, Simon (Lane Davies), tells her to make her emphasis gynecology because that’s where the money is. If she doesn’t, he’ll cut her off financially and she’ll have to move out of her lavish apartment. Elliot’s focus remained internal medicine and endocrinology.

And, yet, still she lacked confidence.

Then there’s her relationship with J.D. They spent the majority of the show in the on-again/off-again dynamic necessary for any ongoing series. He gets a steady rotation of new relationships—a fair number of whom are (either for lack of creative casting options during the aughts or simply for symbolic purposes), also attractive blondes. And while Elliot does get to date her own repertoire of men, she always ends up circling back to J.D. (this also means breaking off an engagement to one of them, Travis Schuldt’s Keith Dudemeister). They still end up together in a healthy-by-TV-comedy-standards relationship, though—even if neither of their neuroses ever really go away.

Elliot was a complicated character whose story arc ended just when Peak TV was beginning to care about complicated female characters. She’s also someone who acknowledged her own mental health and felt comfortable sharing a story of her own suicide attempt with her colleagues and Michael Weston’s Private Dancer, a patient who’d returned from the overseas and whom she’d feared might try to hurt himself once he was discharged. In another episode, she told a patient with memory loss that he was in the hospital due to a suicide attempt—because J.D., who was the man’s doctor, couldn’t bring himself to do it.

Even after Elliot gets a glow-up in the Season 3 premiere, changing her hair and look for an edgier version of herself during a montage centered around the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ classic “American Girl,” she is still an anxious wreck—albeit now one who knows how to expertly apply black eyeliner. Her voice still rises to a squeak when she doubts herself or gets frustrated. She doesn’t feel comfortable talking to people when she’s on the toilet. And, despite being an actual doctor, she calls vaginas “bajingos” and refers to cervical mucus as “icky sticky.” It’s also several seasons in before she feels comfortable telling her colleagues that she is a Republican who supports the war in Iraq (this episode aired in 2007 when such an opinion was extremely controversial). Her curse word of choice is “frick”; a network TV Standards and Practices workaround way before The Good Place gave us “fork.”

In summation, Elliot Reid is the heroine that we neurotic messes need right now.

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Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.

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