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What JD and Co. reveal about real life

‘Realistic’ hospital shows like Casualty are actually unrealistic, and painfully moralistic. The weird and surreal Scrubs is much closer to the truth.

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

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Two questions. Why are hospital dramas usually so crap? And why do mainstream channels ignore genuinely good television comedies?

This was brought to my mind while watching a re-run of the US hospital comedy series Scrubs on E4 the other night. This is one of the most underrated programmes of our time. So why has this Joycean, surreal and brilliant comedy been perpetually relegated to Channel 4’s digital-only entertainment channel, E4, and UKTV’s blokeish re-run channel, Dave? Its rightful place should be on Channel 4 at least, or on BBC1 and ITV1 at best.

Hospital dramas, like police dramas, have become a staple of television in the UK, as they have in the US. Whereas our American cousins have the realism of ER, we have had the more tiresome Casualty and its spin-off, Holby City. The latter may, on occasion, be fairly engaging, but it suffers from the same faults as the programme that spawned it. It is too didactic, forever reminding viewers that hospital visitors should not smoke cigarettes on hospital premises nor use mobile phones on the wards. We are always reminded, unsubtly, that drinking too much or smoking cigarettes is bad for us. Obese people especially are the harbingers of their own demise.

Patients who die in Holby City are invariably undesirable characters who either are despicable or possessed of an ‘unsustainable’ lifestyle. In short, the main theme of Casualty and Holby City is: ‘It’s All Your Fault.’

All ethnic minorities are saintly in Holby City; the villains are always white and working class – as in EastEnders. The female nurses in these programmes are also impossibly good-looking. Anyone who been in a National Health Service (NHS) hospital recently knows that female nurses, while being caring and considerate, are sometimes fat and even ugly. Maybe I have an ancestral, Freudian loathing of large Irishwomen taking my temperature, or poking around my innards. But as far as I can tell, nurses are generally, as the London lingo goes, ‘butters’.

This perhaps explains the appeal of Scrubs, which is ostensibly unrealistic, but is actually a very real representation of life on a hospital ward. The Emmy Award-winning show may be surreal, but it is paradoxically more realistic in its representation of hospitals than its more austere and allegedly faithful counterparts.

ER, Casualty and Holby City usually feature benign moral narratives. Scrubs, on the other hand, has as its main theme ambiguity: good people die, bad people often survive. The surgeons and doctors in Scrubs aren’t heroes. They are flawed individuals. Scrubs is one of those programmes that has no hero. The main character, John Dorian (Zach Braff), is a neurotic, sexual double-dealer. Elliot Read (Sarah Chalke) is equally worried. Doctors Bob Kelso (Ken Jenkins) and Cox (John C McGinley) are drunken psychopaths. The janitor (Neil Flynn) is a bully with an inferiority complex.

Dr Wen (Charles Chun) is forever concerned by perceived anti-Asian prejudice; Jordan Sullivan (Christa Miller) is a poisonous nymphomaniac. Dr Christopher Turk (Donald Faison) is obsessed by his American-African ethnicity, whereas Dr Todd Quinlan (Robert Maschio) is merely a sex maniac, who we all suspect is gay.

In other words, Scrubs represents reality as it is: complicated, difficult and ambiguous. Scrubs works because its message is that life is tricky.

This is a far truer representation of people who work for medical services. The NHS is not manned by beautiful people, but by misfits: neurotic, overworked, troubled, people who smoke and drink far too much. And they are not averse to raiding the drugs cabinet, either, whether it be for uppers or downers. Medics, doctors and surgeons are the biggest drug abusers around, the most annoyingly neurotic and depressive people on the planet. They are also the most sexually promiscuous, which is why Scrubs is the most realistic hospital drama in town.

Scrubs can be repetitive. Every episode does seems to end with a monologue by Braff that begins with the refrain ‘It seems like, at the end of the day…’. Yet it is good to hear that in April this year, Braff announced that Scrubs would be back for an eighth season. It remains an engaging show, which has satirised the hospital drama much in the same way that the film Airplane! took the piss out of the airplane disaster genre – destroying it in the process.

I just wonder if Scrubs can do the same thing. Will Channel 4 ever come to its senses and put this excellent show back on terrestrial television? Why doesn’t Channel 4 give the prominence to Scrubs it once gave to Frasier, a likewise brilliant and cerebral comedy programme? It’s another reason why everyone should purchase Freeview or Sky+. But then again, I would say that.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist. Visit his blog here.

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