He’s A Superman — Or At Least A Super-Showrunner
Bill Lawrence And Why Ted Lasso Isn’t His Finest Hour
Over the last few months, audiences, critics and award givers have all embraced Apple TV’s Ted Lasso. One of the funniest series on any service in a very long time, it has endured itself to the world, not just because of its remarkable humor, but because of the other niceness that surrounds both the title character and basically everybody on the show. Jason Sudeikis is giving one of the funniest and most likable performance that has been practically anathema even to the comedies in the new Golden Age. Ted is the opposite of so many leads — he’s intelligent in way that the world doesn’t quite see, he’s likable to the entire world, and he’s friendly even to the people who are trying to wreck him. And he does all this while undergoing some truly horrific turmoil — he’s finalizing a divorce from a marriage that has been on the rocks for awhile. Sudeikis has more than earned the Golden Globe and Critics Choice he’s won.
I’m glad for the recognition this show has been getting, not just because it is funny and sweet, but because it might finally give due respect to one of the greatest comic showrunners in the history, not merely of Peak TV, but in the entirety of the medium. And yet, I’m willing to bet that until this show broke so big, very few people even knew who Bill Lawrence was. Which, given how good he is at his job and particularly considering where he worked, is really unfair. So I figure now would be a good time to pay tribute to Lawrence’s series and how so much of it has led up to Ted Lasso.
Let’s start with his first series, probably the greatest underviewed show of the entire first decade of the 2000s. In my opinion, Scrubs may have the funniest show of the entire 2000s. It was more adventurous by far than Will & Grace, it was willing to break more boundaries then Everybody Loves Raymond, and it somehow managed to last three times as long as Arrested Development. Yet somehow, it flew under the radar of audiences and the Emmys and I’ve never been able to figure out why.
Scrubs followed the path of John Dorian, known by everybody as JD (This is where Zach Braff broke big.) Beginning as an intern as rising up the ranks at Sacred Heart, a trauma center in an unnamed city, we followed JD as he tried to become a doctor and find humor in a decidedly unfunny world. I truly believe that Scrubs was as close as my generation would ever get to MASH, and it was always far less political.
The series had one of the greatest casts of characters and actors of all time. Sarah Chalke played Eliot, JDs on-again, off again, love interest/soul mate, a female doctor with a mass of neurosis. Donald Faison played Turk, JD’s college roommate and fellow surgeon. (I’m pretty sure if the term ‘bromance’ hadn’t existed by then, they would have to coin it to define J.D. and Turk’s relationship. No one was willing to admit how close they truly were; not even them.) And JD’s role model, Dr. Cox, a perennially raging man who never missed a chance to belittle anybody, and was truly the biggest hero of the entire show. (One of the greatest robberies in television history was how John C. McGinley never got a single Emmy nomination for one of the funniest, most scorched earth performances of all time.)
Where Scrubs truly shone — in a way that even the greatest comic series rarely do — was that it had one of the great back-benches of supporting characters in the history of any TV show. Neil Flynn was by far the most wonderful as the nameless Janitor who spent his entire career tormenting JD in ways so creative and imaginative he never came close to running out. (I was astounded, but not shocked, to learn that Flynn actually improvised the lion’s share of them.) There was also a wonderful performance by the late, great Sam Lloyd as Ted, the sad sack hospital attorney who was truly the greatest portrayer of human misery in TV history. And one of the great performances came from Christa Miller as Jordan, the sexy hospital administrator who was Cox’s ex-wife and whose acidic tongue demonstrated just why these two bitter personalities were utterly perfectly for each other. (Miller is Lawrence’s wife, and he demonstrated, much like Frances McDormand with the Coen Brothers did, that it’s not nepotism if you’re truly talented.) All of these characters could’ve been funny if they’d just done their bits, but Lawrence and his staff went out of their way to give them backstories and allow them to interact with the main cast — and better still, with each other — to give the depth that I can only truly compare with David Simon’s work on The Wire for a level of pure character ability.
This was one of the truly great sitcoms of all time — and yet for the entirety of its run, both the awards circuit and audiences ignored it. Even when the show had the golden time slow of following Friends, it could never draw an audience of more than ten million viewers and had to fight for renewal every season. Was the humor too dark for network audiences? Was the continuity of characters and gags too complicated for them to follow? (Arrested Development, which had a similarly complicated gag history, would never gain mass audience, and not until the show’s run was nearly over would series like 30 Rock and Parks & Rec show there was room for this kind of humor on network TV.) Whatever the reason, the series never gained traction with audiences.
But it was more inexplicable that the series got almost no recognition from the Emmys. The series was only nominated once for Best Comedy and had only one nomination for any of the actors (Braff. When he lost, the writers in good humor turned it into a gag about the man who beat him, Tony Shalhoub.) Scrubs was infinitely funnier and far deeper than Will & Grace, but that series was always a perennial nominee and Scrubs never was. For my early years as a critic, it was the biggest robbery by the Emmys I witnessed. (I’ve seen far greater ones since.)
Weirdly enough, Scrubs suffered the fate of too many network comedies: it stayed on the air too long. (Though in typical fashion it was very odd. It was cancelled by NBC in 2007, revived by ABC in 2008, showed a final episode in the spring of 2009, and was then brought back — briefly — without Zach Braff before giving up the ghost.) It was clearly losing steam, but even near the end it was still coming up with ways to be funny — it featured a crossover with Sesame Street that was both funny and sweet.
I know that every actor in it is busy doing other things — and some are no longer with us — but I actually wouldn’t mind a reboot or even a continuation of Scrubs. It was always relevant in the era pre-Obamacare, and if anything it is more relevant now. Millions watched The Office this past year, out of memory of what they lost, and have wanted more of it; I’d argue we need a revival of Scrubs to best appreciate what the world had to handle. It might be darker than the show was before, but it couldn’t be any worse than Grey’s Anatomy right now. God knows JDs fantasies have always been more entertaining and we need a Perry Cox more than ever.
Wow. I didn’t mean to gush. Tomorrow I’ll go over the rest of Lawrence’s series, how they were lesser gems that weren’t appreciated, and often found humor in unlikely places.