Let me cut to the chase. “Scrubs,” with its cutting-edge dramedy style, influenced plenty of the shows that came after it. Not all of them followed the same narrative structure, but some did cough… Grey’s Anatomy, which aired just four years later. Scrubs pokes fun at the similarity in S05E11, “I do love that show, it’s like they’ve been watching our lives and then just put it on TV.” The show’s narration is so iconic that when Zach Braff took to Twitter to narrate a (hilarious) AI-generated version of one of the legendary scrubs intros it garnered over 760 thousand views.
Except for a handful of episodes narrated by other characters in the show, John Dorian, played by Zack Braff is the show’s primary narrator. Through J. D’s narration, Scrubs traverses multiple plot lines, tying what might have been disparate stories into a moral lesson or concept. His pontifications and asides compensate for what is fundamentally a very flawed character, giving us an insight into his motivations and odd decision-making. In season nine, Kerry Bishé playing Lucy Bennet (mostly) takes over the narration, but we’ll just pretend that season never happened.
Scrubs, A Surrealist Masterpiece
Scrubs uses narration and voice over as it sees fit, adhering to no rules while still managing to integrate it seamlessly into the story. Following the trials and tribulations of sensitive and imaginative J.D, his pseudo-replacement father figure, with the perpetually furious heart of dented gold, Dr. Cox. His fellow interns, fast talking, type A, Elliot Reed, and the macho, loveable and hilarious, Turk. As well as Carla, the hyper-competent nurse and one janitor who was originally supposed to be a figment of J.D’s imagination. Of course, every show needs some romance for the protagonist to sweat over. Scrubs delivers, with a bromance, the likes of which has never been replicated on any other series or movie. It likely helped that outside the screen, J.D and Turk are besties, even hosting a podcast together, Fake Doctors, Real Friends with Zach and Donald.
Seamless Narration Carries the Show
Zach Braff’s narration is the perfect vehicle to carry the show, it’s humorous with an edge and a childlike wonder. He narrates much as he acts on the show, which adds rather than detracts from the overall tone, and never overpowers or distracts from the story. He provides humor and insight into J. D’s thought process. Interactions that might have needed a lot of exposition or could have been boring are lightened through swift interjections, highlights, and asides. The editing is masterfully done, keeping the pacing of the show tight. The narration blends so seamlessly that you might not even notice it, and before you know it you are lost in the story. It’s just that good. The intros at the beginning of episodes aren’t long, don’t drag, and there is nothing painful in the re-watching, which is one of the things that makes this such a popular show even today, almost a dozen years after its final season.
Creator, writer, showrunner, and occasional actor in the show, Bill Lawrence explains, “What we decided was, rather than have it be a monotone narration if it’s going to be Zach’s voice, we’re going to do everything through J.D.’s eyes. It opened up a visual medium that those of us as comedy writers were not used to.” While, as a voice-over artist myself, I can’t help resent Lawrence’s description of ‘monotone narration’ the approach is effective in Scrubs. As is the reported openness of the show to ad libbing which lends itself nicely to a natural feeling of the narration and rapid pacing. This isn’t storybook narration nor is it omniscient, it’s J.D’s perspective on life, unreliable and imaginatively twisted.
Realism and Big Topics Through Narration
Unlike so many other comedies (and dramas) Scrubs had its viewers actively in tears at the end of multiple episodes, both tears of laughter and tears of genuine sadness, sympathy, and catharsis. It is still touted as one of the most accurate medical shows on television, and we have all collectively agreed to forgive the backward x-ray in the opening title sequence. Sure, the show had J.D in wildly unrealistic situations, some medical, some fantasy, but 4 out of 5 medical professionals agree, Scrubs gets the big picture stuff right.
The day-to-day, the struggles, the successes, and the emotional roller coaster of being a med student and doctor. Patients die in the show. With more than one appearance from the hooded, scythe-wielding grim reaper. Sometimes there isn’t always a miracle cure or procedure, sometimes people die, and medical professionals have to keep on moving even when it’s hard. What could have been cold, or maudlin is instead handled with care through narration. J.D walks out of the building plagued by self-doubt, and we, the viewers are granted that insight. The characters don’t have to wail and sob to get internal feelings across to the viewer. Scrubs uses both show and tell, and sometimes that’s better. As J.D. said, “We fight death for a living every single day. We can’t let it know we’re afraid of it or it’ll kick our ass.”
Kim Handysides is an Award-winning voice artist, coach, and thought leader in the voice arts. Her narrations have been heard on Discovery, Netflix, and the major networks, in IMAX, the White House and the Smithsonian.