When ‘Scrubs’ Shifted From Single-Cam to Multi-Cam in an Ode to its Ancestors
‘Structurally Sound’ is a recurring feature where each week a different structurally unusual, rule-breaking anomaly of an episode from a comedy series is examined.
“Unfortunately, around here things don’t always end as neat and tidy as they do in sitcoms. Relationships aren’t always magically fixed in thirty minutes — you have to work on them. Problems don’t always have easy solutions. And around here, nice people don’t always get better.”
Scrubs is a series that receives a lot of flack. I’m not sure if it’s just the Zach Braff-iness of it or the show’s cartoonish nature rubbing people the wrong way, but if you find yourself able to get past your hangups with the series, you’ll open yourself up to a very challenging, ambitious sitcom. There’s no denying that the series managed to make a certain impression, lasting for a staggering nine seasons and even crossing two networks.
Bill Lawrence (who had made Spin City beforehand and would go on to make Cougar Town afterwards) is all about making series where the characters grow and evolve, with Scrubs outlining some very rewarding arcs for all of its characters. With the show so heavily steeped through the imaginative J.D.’s perspective, often this character development and drama of hospital life would be filtered through some limitless fantasy sequence. The series would go on to produce some highly elaborate “concept” episodes, whether it be The Wizard of Oz riffing “My Way Home”, its The Princess Bride homage, “My Princess”, or the fan-favorite musical installment, “My Musical.” Each one of these would challenge what a sitcom is capable of and would all be suitable choices for “Structurally Sound”, but it’s the show’s fourth season entry, “My Life in Four Cameras” that’s particularly special and going to see focus here because not only is it structurally impressive, it’s also an episode that’s specifically about sitcoms.
J.D.’s fantasies are often indulged in as a means of escapism. It’s particularly fitting for this episode to give in to such a drastic technical makeover for its fantasy, as J.D.’s patient du jour happens to be a sitcom scribe legend. This is a lot heavier than simply something like, J.D. and Turk have been up all night watching Cheers episodes so the episode takes on the DNA of that show accordingly. No, this is J.D. needing the cushy, candy-coated safety net of a sitcom as a means of coping with the fact that a “hero” of his is dying.
While it’s understandable that a real Cheers writer isn’t used in the episode, it’s a cute nod that the fictitious one’s name is Charles James, a mash-up of the three actual creators of Cheers, Glen Charles, Les Charles, and James Burrows. This is merely the start of the Cheers worship that goes down in “My Life in Four Cameras,” but the passion that comes forward here feels so, so genuine. You can tell this is a big deal for Lawrence and crew, and while other shows have certainly made parody of Cheers before (with Delocated even pulling off quite the accomplished one) I can’t think of another comedy that’s made such a love letter to the series and that era of sitcoms.
As J.D. struggles with Charles’ ailing diagnosis, the rest of Sacred Heart is left with their own respective crises as well. Carla and Turk find the spark in their relationship increasingly absent, while Dr. Cox wrestles with Dr. Kelso over a budget cut that will lead to someone losing their job. There are weighty stakes across the board, and so this fantasy sitcom veneer that’s placed on everything is a welcome reprieve for everyone, not just J.D. Even the high-key lighting makes these problems immediately feel less gloomy.
It’s kind of incredible just how far Bill Lawrence pushes his show to go in its efforts to become a multi-cam sitcom, and considerable props are due for Adam Bernstein, the director. Furthermore, the episode’s metamorphosis doesn’t just include stylistic touches such as a brighter lighting key, a live studio audience, and a different camera setup, but “My Life in Four Cameras” also adopts the hackneyed plotting (a talent show with a prize of $26,372, the exact amount that’s upsetting Kelso’s budget, is conveniently being held), gratuitous stunt casting (remember Clay Aiken?), and hypersexualization of generic multi-cam sitcoms. Not only do Elliot and Carla’s scrubs become low-cut, leggier, and with matching heels, background male doctors are even completely shirtless. Even random patients see replacement with runway models.
The series actually built a new set to accommodate the new camera setup, studio audience, and the sort of shot composition that they were looking to create within the episode. The live studio audience is probably the biggest affection taken on, and it’s even more beautiful that the audience was culled together from the winners of a Scrubs Superfan Contest held by an LA radio station. The details to be a part of this event were even aired on-screen during the episode, “My Ocardial Infarction” earlier in the season. All of these efforts more than paid off though, with the series winning an Emmy for Outstanding Multi-Camera Picture Editing in 2005, which is kind of incredible since Scrubs is normally a single-cam program and it’s the only time it saw nomination in the category.
“My Life in Four Cameras” acts as a pretty brilliant take on how far sitcoms have come in a relatively short amount of time, as well as acting as an inspired comparison on how single-camera and multi-camera sitcoms operate. The fact that the whole thing functions as fan service and a tribute to Cheers, one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, is the icing on the cake. Honestly, you could use this episode as a teaching aid in a television history classic it’s so poignant.
The episode even begins in “sitcom show-off” mode as J.D. rattles through a number of sitcom-based trivia questions to prove the merits of his current romantic infatuation. Even before the sitcom trappings and technical elements take over this episode, it still has such a sitcom focus and mindset present. When J.D. and Turk learn that Charles James is a former Cheers writer, they bombard him with quotes and Cheers-isms in adoration. We also not only get the Cheers theme getting sung within the episode (but sorely absent upon the DVD version), but the Sanford and Sons theme, too.
Like Scrubs would become so prone to do in its later years, there’s a gut punch of an ending that undercuts all of the sitcom fantasy that’s taken over. The episode approaches its conclusion and it looks like Charles James is about to be saved courtesy of a contrived situation, only for reality to suddenly intervene and knock the sitcom off its track because life isn’t a sitcom (even when it is), and we don’t always get easy outs in the end. Not only is Charles still dying, but Carla and Turk still face a fractured, uncertain relationship, and Kenny isn’t able to avoid losing his job due to the budget cuts. That being said, even when our lives are a mess, out of control, and aren’t as care-free as sitcoms, we can still go home at the end of the day and use these comedies to chill out and medicate ourselves. That’s the magic of sitcoms. Even though we aren’t living in them, they’re still powerful enough to save us, and “My Life in Four Cameras” is all about the beauty in that.