NBC's new E.R. alternative is more than just an E.R. alternative. 

Laugh and Death

"Scrubs" was promoted — before it debuted — as the flip side of "E.R."

It's not. It's a lot like "E.R.," only shorter and with jokes.

A shorter "E.R." with jokes, however, is a far cry from the longer "E.R." without the jokes. Different, to be sure, but that doesn't imply "better" or "worse."

Perhaps it would be kinder, not to mention more efficient, to stop all this wordplay and just say it straight out: "Scrubs" is good TV. Those who gather routinely around my TV set think that "Scrubs" and the new Ellen DeGeneres show are the only sitcoms worth watching this season. And NBC, ever with its finger on the pulse of the nation's viewers, agrees.

The network has ordered nine more episodes of "Scrubs" to round out a full season. This is good news.

What distinguishes "Scrubs" is its interplay of silliness and angst. Each episode aims for the funny bone with humor ranging from over-the-top slapstick to knee-jerk cynical wit, all crafted with surgical precision. Then comes the body-slam, a moment where the sarcasm and pessimism is excised, and a moment of universal truth — perhaps even goodness — is allowed to shine through. This inevitably has to be the case in a series with a medical premise, even a sitcom, since people die in hospitals, and so far, only "Six Feet Under" has managed to debride grief and find a lot of hilarity in death.

"Scrubs" takes its name from the loose-fitting pants and shirts that people who work in hospitals wear to get coffee from the 7-Eleven at the end of the day to prove their High Priest status. It focuses on the peculiar experiences of a naive and rumpled medical intern, John "J.D." Dorian (Zach Braff). J.D. works in a comically surreal hospital peopled by unpredictable staff and volatile patients. His best friend is aiming for a career in surgery, which would make him an elite among elites. J.D.'s supervisor is a cynic among cynics of the "don't bother me with your petty life-and-death problems" variety. J.D.'s blonde and peppy fellow intern suffers from low self-esteem, but she's learned how to use that to her advantage. The cast is a good mix of talented, funny people, suppurating with comic potential that bursts through in each episode.

Having worked in one in a former lifetime, I can tell you that tragedy and comedy are the yin and yang of hospitals. One comes with the territory. The other allows the High Priests to maintain their sanity.

And since "flip" has more than one meaning, using it to describe "Scrubs" is actually quite apropos.

Airs on Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. on NBC-TV.


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