Brendan Fraser’s pair of appearances in Scrubs‘ first two seasons mark the moments when Scrubs really tests the elasticity of its reality. “My Occurrence” spends half of its time in J.D.’s head, while Fraser’s return in the show in Season 2 takes the idea of a character processing shock in an ever darker, more heartbreaking light. In all three of these episodes, it’s less about Ben’s goofy character and declining health from leukemia than it is about how it affects J.D. and Cox, as they come up against the boundaries of their ability to cope with professional tragedy, when it becomes personal.
Now, these episodes are hardly the only time Scrubs affects its reality. However, most instances simply break its world and reform it as something else, from a sitcom to a medieval fantasy story. There really aren’t many episodes in the series run that are like “My Occurrence,” which spends nearly half the episode in a sequence of events that don’t exist. Once Elliot and Turk deal with the mistakes made with their patients, they’re sidelined for J.D.’s daydream about Ben’s blood tests just being another mistake around the hospital. They’re not, of course, and that world crashing down at the end of “Occurrence” is an important table setter for “My Hero,” the powerful twenty minutes that follow.
For all the goofiness Brendan Fraser brings to the table on Scrubs, his role as Jordan’s brother comes with an important side note: he might be Dr. Cox’s one real friend in the world (Cox calls him his best friend – but c’mon, how many more are there?), the one person we’ve seen – besides the short-lived Kristen – who puts a smile on the good doctor’s face. Through the first half of “My Occurrence,” that’s all Cox is: he’s smiling, hugging Ben, even letting Ben kiss him on the cheek when they both refuse to stop hugging each other. When Cox’s face turns to concern over Ben’s bleeding hand, it’s the anchor for the two-parter’s large emotional shift, from happy slapstick to unsettling anxiety, which dominates much of “My Hero.”
Cox’s struggles to reconcile that Ben has leukemia is a sobering moment for the show. Up to this point, Cox has been able to handle just about everything thrown at him this year, save for the one night he lost a perfect game in the bottom of the ninth, and seeing him run away from Ben’s diagnosis is a startling moment for his character. It’s not often (early on) we see Cox struggling to reconcile with his professional shortcomings – and although he didn’t do anything wrong in diagnosing Ben, watching him suffer with no ability to help in any sort of way is too much for him to handle, which throws the entire framing device of the second episode into conflict when J.D. has to realize his ‘hero’ Dr. Cox is just as human as the rest of us.
Both episodes are concerned with this idea of mortality. “My Occurrence” is all about the cost of innocuous human error, both real and implied (Turk nearly cuts off a man’s testicle because of a mixed up surgical order, and Elliot accidentally informs her patient she’s pregnant), while “My Hero” explores the limits of our empathy These are both episodes very concerned with the humanity of J.D. and Cox, though, pushing Turk and Elliot to smaller, supporting roles through the course of “My Hero” (Turk spends the episode observing The Todd, Sacred Heart’s idiot savant, for example), in order to make way for this larger story, much of which takes place in the realm of J.D.’s brain – even more so than usual.
This kind of disruption to the natural order for a guest star almost never works. However, Fraser’s inclusion into the Scrubs universe is so well introduced, he feels ingrained in the world from the start, which gives Ben the ability to become a wildly empathetic character, even in the course of two short episodes. His reliance on Cox through his chemo is really what causes the doctor to step up, and that’s a meaningful moment. No matter how hard it is for Cox to deal with the emotions of possibly losing his only true friend, knowing how much harder it must be for Ben to do it alone is about as heartwarming a moment as Cox offers in this first season (he even hugs Ben! Multiple times!), a rare scene of Cox being able to reconcile with his perceived shortcomings, even though he knows he had nothing to do with Ben getting leukemia. As his doctor, however, Cox feels responsible for him, and when someone gets something as petty and horrible as leukemia, it’s hard not feel helpless in that responsibility, an emotion that humanizes Cox more than just about anything in the show’s history.
Honestly, both “Occurrence” and “Hero” feel a step below the very best episodes of Scrubs. The plots with other characters are so insignificant, whatever story they do get feels underdeveloped (like Carla writing a nasty evaluation of Kelso, and Elliot taking credit for it to protect her), to make room for cliffhangers, moments of Fraser riffing, and a ten-minute sequence that basically plays out in J.D.’s mind. The main story is undeniably great, particularly when it pushes Cox up against the edge of his own morality as a friend and doctor; however, when it addresses other characters outside of his orbit (aka everyone not named J.D.), much of these two episodes feel like they’re repeating themselves, themes and ideas we’ve seen better presented in other episodes (Carla uses her breasts to make some point about instincts I still don’t understand, for example). Regardless, both these episodes are fine examples of how to integrate a flashy guest star (yes, Brendan Fraser was a flashy guest star in 2002), and offer a glimpse into where the show would push its characters emotionally in the future. Even more so, “My Occurrence” and “My Hero” continue to explore’s J.D.’s hero worship of Cox, which is always a great way to explore Scrubs‘ darker ruminations on life and the world.
– Of course Todd would be a big banana eater. Give the Big Dog some love!
– Doug’s bravery in these two episodes (or lack of it) cannot be understated. Far and away the breakout side character in the second half of the season.
– So J.D.’s voiceovers are all journal entries! Scrubs would never revisit this idea, but it makes for a fun closing image, when the Janitor breaks into his locker to read his journal and scare him with knowledge of personal facts.
– Elliot’s constructed breakdown is comedic gold.
– The Blanks make their first appearance singing cartoon theme songs. “Here he comes, here comes Speed Racer!”
– Leonard makes his first appearance as security guard – and yes, he still has his right arm. For now.
– “Jumpin’ Jupiter, I do enjoy the tough love.”
– J.D. on why he doesn’t go commando: “It makes me tingle in my giblets.”
[Photo via NBC]