Season 4 was a season of change for Scrubs. The young doctors of Sacred Heart had become residents, Turk (Donald Faison) and Carla (Judy Reyes) were in their first year of marriage, and the season essentially ended by establishing a new status quo for the hospital sitcom. At the opening of Scrubs: The Complete Fifth Season, things are pretty much where the previous season's finale had left them. J.D. (Zach Braff) is in between places to live, Elliot (Sarah Chalke) is working on a research fellowship at another hospital and dating Jake (Josh Randall), and Turk and Carla are trying to become pregnant while Jordan (Christa Miller) has returned to work for the first time since she and Dr. Cox (John C. McGinley) had their first child. And, of course, the Janitor (Neil Flynn) stands by, leaning on his mop, mocking and concocting new lies about his rather colorful past.
As the season gets going, it doesn't take long for the show to get back into familiar territory. By its fifth year, Scrubs was very much in its stride. Even Elliot comes back to Sacred Heart within a couple of episodes. The formula established at the beginning of the series is still intact, and while you don't fix what ain't broke, ongoing sitcoms such as this do run the risk of running out of ideas. Braff is the show's center, playing up his goofy doe eyes and lollipop voice, girlish and overly sensitive, narrating the show in order to deliver both the moral of the episode and the flights of fantasy that set Scrubs apart from your average workplace sitcom. In fact, the show is so comfortable with these things, they regularly make fun of them. When J.D. is before the Morbidity and Mortality council, Chief of Staff Bob Kelso (Ken Jenkins) asks him why he is summarizing everything that has happened when the character's voiceover turns into a spoken monologue. Or, when J.D.'s new interns are sucking up to him by laughing at all of his bad jokes, the Janitor deconstructs the J.D. method in order to prove his point and mess with the doctor's head. Even J.D.'s seasonal love interest is designed to be almost exactly like him (though, the producers and writers already kind of did this with Chrystee Pharris' Kylie character the previous year).
Even so, all of these things still work. Plenty of the fantasy sequences are still hilarious: Turk battling the other surgeons in an extended kung-fu fight scene; the Janitor buying a hyper-intelligent shark and fooling J.D. into swimming with it; Dr. Cox locking Jordan in a glass case so he can watch basketball in peace. There are also still some fresh plots to be had, like the Janitor tricking J.D. into robbing the home of an older Asian couple or Turk joining an Air Band made up of hospital misfits. In fact, the more absurd the scenarios, the better for season 5. It's really only the stand-bys--the dorky games Turk and J.D. play or the need to have us "learn something" from each episode--that come off as stale as the crackers J.D. hides behind his ear (playing "Hide the Saltine" in episode #9).
Scrubs: The Complete Fifth Season finds its real strong point, though, at the end of disc 1. Episode 9, "My Half-Acre," introduces that aforementioned new girlfriend, Julie. Mandy Moore joins the cast for two shows, and her plucky demeanor is a real shot in the arm. Playing J.D.'s perfect woman, Moore proves herself to be an extremely talented physical comedian. In her very first scene, she pulls a move where her elbow slips out from under her and her head crashes into the table, and it's one of the funniest pieces of slapstick I've seen in a long time. Julie is just as nerdy (and three times as klutzy) as her boyfriend, and Moore has a natural exuberance that allows her to pull it off, making it seem as if wearing a wizard hat were something natural that she does every day. Her skill is particularly bad news for Braff, whose performance on the show has become increasingly forced the more famous he has become. He's turned into one of those comedians who is so convinced of his own funniness, he no longer puts any effort into it. His mugging has gotten so bad, I feel like I'm watching an elementary school play where the star is also the writer. Which, since the show's writers have also given up on challenging their star, it's an insult they at least deserve part of.
Really, I'd have been satisfied had they removed Zach Braff from Scrubs and put Mandy Moore in his place. Thankfully, the excellent supporting cast is still one of the best ensembles on television. They keep the show on track, and the more the plots zigzag around J.D. so that others may shine, the better for the comedy. Turk and Carla's trials and tribulations with the baby making go from amusing (Turk making Carla angry in order to spice up their on-the-clock ovulation sex) to touching (the fear that one of them might have fertility issues), and also make way for nice parallels where Cox and Carla can share their anxieties about what it means to be a parent. (This is perhaps best in the well-constructed episode 7, "My Way Home," an extended homage to The Wizard of Oz.) Elliot also gets a lot of fun things to do, dealing with her job and relationship woes and somehow becoming the voice of reason after J.D. moves in with her and starts dating Julie. Having gone out with J.D. in the past, she knows exactly what he's going to do to mess things up. Of course, this doesn't keep her from making her own mistakes when she starts dating the new intern, Keith (Travis Schuldt). This causes trouble with the other interns when Elliot gives him preferential treatment between very public displays of affection, and it activates something in J.D., who is jealous of Keith's adeptness as a doctor.
In addition to Mandy Moore, Scrubs: The Complete Fifth Season also has its regular parade of guest stars. Curb Your Enthusiasm's Cheryl Hines shows up as Cox's religious sister, Maria Menounous plays a hair-obsessed girl J.D. meets at the bar, Markie Post (Night Court) is Elliot's controlling mother, and Jason Bateman (Arrested Development) features as an ambivalent patient. Michael Learned, best known from her time on The Waltons, has a recurring role as Mrs. Wilk, a woman whose illness requires an extended stay at the hospital, her life experience setting up new opportunities for the young doctors to learn about dealing with patients. Kids in the Hall-alum Dave Foley comes in during this story line, as well, playing the new counselor at Sacred Heart (the position previously held by Heather Graham). It's a perfect slot for Foley, as the character indulges in inappropriate jokes before sliding in the wisdom. Foley is great with smarm, and so he easily rankles Cox and J.D.
The resolution of the Mrs. Wilk story doesn't really pay off that great for Scrubs. The way the doctors react to death is a pretty regular topic for the show, and there is nothing new about it here. These "very special" episodes come like clockwork every season, and it gets less and less interesting each year. Similarly, we can always count on the return of J.D.'s deadbeat older brother. The increasingly annoying Thomas Cavanagh (Ed), who now seems to be making a career out of playing loser brothers on television, is just tiresome at this point. Okay, we get it! He's never going to get his life together, he's never going to move out of mom's garage, and he's always going to mess it up for J.D. when little brother's hitting on girls. Surprise, surprise. Move on!
Which is sort of the problem with Scrubs: The Complete Fifth Season. The shows are still funny (particularly compared to the turgid season six, currently airing on NBC), but a familiarity has settled in. The gags and the situations have a been-there-done-that whiff about them, and the homilies that accompany every resolution have been old since season one. (How many are there? Five? Long-term memory is an issue at Sacred Heart, it seems.) All the wussy songs played over those resolutions should have run out somewhere around Garden State, but I think Scrubs and Grey's Anatomy actually invent new bands to keep them knee-deep in sensitive-dude ballads. In fact, jokes about Grey's and House are about the only new things on this set. Once Mandy Moore departs and the Mrs. Wilk plotline takes over, a certain staleness creeps in. Like an old cookie (or that Saltine again), we can sense the flavor there, and it might even please our taste buds a little, but something just isn't right. I mentioned that in one fantasy sequence, the Janitor buys a shark and then lures J.D. into his pool. We don't actually see the creature when Zach Braff jumps from the diving board and into the water, but maybe we should assume that the air J.D. catches is directly above the finny predator.
Cavanagh's guest slot is episode 18, the last one on DVD 2; fortunately, the third and final disc manages to hold off the complete tailspin with its last clutch of episodes. The charming Elizabeth Banks (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) comes on for the final two episodes as J.D.'s new love interest, and she helps make the season go out on a high note. Even earlier on this last disc, however, the quality starts to rise. Sidelining Braff in episode #19 for the regular "go inside other people's heads" script helps, of course. Dr. Cox actually gets one of his best rants ever in #19 when he insults Turk for not being black enough, and any time we shift to the Janitor's point of view, some weirdness is sure to be around the corner (here mainly centered around his odd inventions). Neil Flynn is one of the slickest players in the cast and it's great to see him get extra screen time. Also, Mad TV's Nicole Sullivan proves that repetition isn't always bad. Her recurring appearances as an annoying patient clicks yet again, with her this time visiting karma on J.D. by stalking him the way he stalks Cox. Here, the poignancy of her loneliness actually hits a nice emotional chord and tosses a good twist into the script. (Also, that episode, #20, has the very funny subplot where Carla and Elliot speculate that the Todd (Robert Maschio) is gay.) Of course, Cox's resulting slide into self-pity is a predictable groaner we can see coming a mile off, but you take the good with the bad--and thankfully, Scrubs: The Complete Fifth Season stills keeps the bad from tipping the scales.
In fact, the producers even throw me a bone on the last disc. Episode #22, "My Déjà Vu, My Déjà Vu," takes a good-natured poke at the tendency for sitcoms to start getting that old similar feeling after they've gone on for five years. J.D. goes to work and begins to notice that everything that is happening to him feels like it's happened before. All the gags in his story thread are redos from previous seasons! He chalks it up to having worked at the hospital so long, and he eventually finds comfort in the predictability of a life well-lived. Touché, folks, touché!
The episodes included in Scrubs: The Complete Fifth Season are:
Billy Dee Williams, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Gary Busey also pop in for quick cameos as themselves.
DVD 3 holds the rest of the extras, including an extended version of the 100th episode. Footage from the celebratory party for that episode is also shown in "My 117 Episodes: Five Seasons of Scrubs," an otherwise unimaginative 17-minute documentary with cast and crew interviews and highlight clips from the year. The 100th episode of the series is actually episode #7 of the season, the "Wizard of Oz" episode. The extended version is about eight minutes longer than normal, and I noticed a lot of jokes that went on longer than the shortened version and some new jokes. It's already a pretty funny episode, and all of the added jokes really work. Zach Braff was the director this time around, and he has recorded a commentary for this, essentially his director's cut. He explains that this is the original edit he made, and like most of the directors on the series, he turned it in with a little extra fat to give the producer's choices for how to shape the segment for broadcast.
There are seven deleted scenes and nineteen alternate line takes included here. I like that for both, the producers give us enough of the final scene so we can see the difference between what was aired and what was cut. The deleted scenes are both short and lengthy, and are along the normal lines you'd expect. The "alternate lines" consist of rough footage showing different readings for various jokes, sometimes with different lines altogether, various inflections, and bloopers. They can be funny, but they do get tedious, as these reels often do.
The third and final commentary for this season is on episode 20, "My Lunch," and is given by John C. McGinley and director John Michel. This pairing makes more sense than the Flynn/Winston commentary, as it's a Cox-intensive episode. That means that McGinley shares some good technical details for his scenes, but the talk can lapse for other scenes. It's a fairly average audio track.