Get me rewrite — stat!

NBC's "Scrubs" is supposed to be the hot new comedy of the season. Now where did I leave that defibrillator? Plus: "Alias."

Topics: Television,

Thursday, Oct. 4, 2001

Dear Diary:

I have a great idea for a sitcom! It’s called “Vacuum,” and it stars an assortment of ethnically varied adorables who get together every day to insult each other against a black background. Aside from being visually stunning, the bare-bones format might force the show’s writers to dig beyond each character’s first epidermal layer and actually extract something, if not of value, then at least recognizable as human behavior. It could just strip down the form to its purest essence and come up with something unintentionally brilliant, inviting references to Sartre, Beckett and Ionesco without even trying.

Yes, it sounds farfetched, but I would cheerfully risk watching a quartet of antagonistic dominant character traits abuse each other in a black box rather than watch yet another dutifully filmed, weekly broadcast of workplace lampoon miss its mark.

It’s not that I’m tired of workplace comedies (in theory, they are preferable to their “family” alternative by an infinite smidgen); it’s that they unfailingly disappoint. In real life, few settings offer mocking opportunities as tantalizing as the modern job site, but on TV, these settings are little more than scenery useful in supplying funny props. Maybe it’s because so many TV writers have so little to draw upon beyond their previous jobs delivering newspapers, mowing lawns and babysitting. “The West Wing” is one of the few exceptions to this.

“Scrubs,” unfortunately, is not. I was under the impression that NBC’s overpraised new comedy would cast a cold, satiric eye on the on the brave new world of the American health industry. In the hands of, say, Jessica Mitford, Evelyn Waugh and Joseph Heller (my dream team!), “Scrubs” could be a black-as-death comedy with a heavy dose of gallows humor. But “Six Feet Under” notwithstanding, the broadcast networks have a problem with dark humor — and the gory histrionics of puffed-up medical dramas like “ER” and “Chicago Hope” continue to be spared the serious lampooning they so richly deserve. As Mitford, queen of the muckrakers, once said, “You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty.” “Scrubs” will not be doing either.



Instead, it will apparently center on the Ally McBealish emotions — telegraphed, of course, through voice-over — of a young medical intern named J.D. (Zach Braff). J.D. is so like Ally that his feelings are dramatized for our own delectation in the form of slo-mo chase sequences and other clichéd cinematic devices.

Feeling like a deer in the headlights, for example, we see J.D. portrayed as — a deer in the headlights.

J.D.’s foils on the show are Dr. Cox (John McGinley), a mentor so cartoonishly mean he’s not funny; Elliott, a geeky girl/friend (Sarah Chalke) whose social incompetence may turn out to be a liability; Turk, a suddenly more-popular-than-him best friend (Donald Faison); and a bullying janitor who has decided to make J.D.’s life a living hell. The hospital in “Scrubs” resembles nothing more than high school, a fact that J.D. points out early in the first episode, further proving that TV should try to hire writers with at least one life experience that does not remind them of high school. It seems only fair: We don’t have to suffer kids on “Buffy” thinking aloud via the magic of voice-over things like, “High school is just like sitting in a cubicle for eight a hours a day pretending to work.”

And what is with TV’s new obsession with interiority, anyway? The voice-overs, fantasy and other nonlinear sequences seen on “Scrubs” also plague us on “Inside Schwartz” and “Alias.” Did the medium get called shallow one too many times? Whatever the reason, it seems like a safe bet to say we’re going to be seeing a lot more of the inside of TV characters’ heads, which should be as familiar to people with heads as TV workplaces are to people with jobs.

Monday, Oct. 8, 2001

Dear Diary:

Now, as a workplace drama, “Alias” is much funnier than “Scrubs.” “Alias” stars a comically stern turbo-tart named Sydney (Jennifer Garner), who toils as a double agent for the CIA.

This is her new job. Her old job was working as a spy for SD-6, a covert branch of what she was told was the CIA, but turned out to be the very enemy she was fighting.

And all this before graduating from college! It’s the kind of life experience TV writers could use. Anyway, Sydney thought she was working for the good guys, until she leaked the news about SD-6 to her fiancé, Danny, and got him killed. (Oops.) This is an unfortunate introduction to her character, it can be argued. It’s like those “Fugitive”/”U.S. Marshalls” movies Tommy Lee Jones keeps making. I mean, isn’t he always chasing the wrong guy? Syd can pout and frown as much as she wants to, but that maneuver pretty much brands her a bonehead.

This episode starts with a montage of scenes from last week’s episode, which lets you know right away that this show is impossible to follow. She thought she was a spy working for the CIA. Then she learned she wasn’t. Then she learned that her own father, a CIA agent himself (Dad, what are you doing here?), knew about her fiancé’s murder before it happened. Syd coquettishly slaps her father across the face and stalks out of the room. He looks stoical but a little turned on.

It’s creepy, but this is what happens when people start getting into double-agenting. Everything gets a little twisted and confused.

“Alias” features a lot of action sequences of Sydney running, leaping and shooting a variety of foreign men while wearing sexy costumes and wigs and shouting things in any number of languages. It is pointless to try to make sense of them, and they should be viewed as welcome respites from Sydney chewing out her various male co-workers. After having spent the morning being chased into an elevator and shot at, anyone might be forgiven for being tense, but Sydney is a know-it-all. Worse, she has a flashback sequence (not again!) for every anecdote; we are but prisoners to her version of the story.

As she angrily is debriefed by her case manager, Vaughn, back at the agency, she explains that the last action sequence we saw was three years ago. The man who wanted her dead was Leonard Dreyfus, bankroller of SD-6 operations. He has crews everywhere, she says, including Memphis.

Memphis? Tennesee?

Egypt.

Welcome to Egypt, where Sydney sits across the table while two Egyptian arms dealers squabble over a defective weapon. The argument ends when one of them shoots the other. Sydney shouts something in Arabic. “That was six months ago,” Sydney tells Vaughn.

Who can compete with Sydney’s travel-and-mayhem schedule? Six minutes in, I am world-weary and exhausted. Before the show is up, Sydney will have traveled to Moscow and Cairo to personally kick foreign ass and exhume a nuclear warhead from the grave of an arms dealer who (surprise!) is not dead.

“Alias” was created by J.J. Abrams, the man responsible for “Felicity,” as obvious atonement for his previous efforts. Sydney is the opposite of that simpering nerve-instrument that is our morose curly-haired college student. Although it sure is thrilling to watch Syd, modishly dressed in a chador, cradling the bomb’s plutonium core in her hand while somebody holds a gun to her head, we already know what will happen.

Next week, she will exotically beat some other foreign national into paste before hopping onto a plane to China or Pakistan or somewhere. Meanwhile, for all her martial prowess, Sydney is just a barking set of cheekbones. Sydney could spend a little less time in Capoeira class if she took a tip from “Felicity” and learned to disarm hostile forces with her big doe eyes.

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

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