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Image: Sarah Chalke, Zach Braff, and Donald Faison of "Scrubs"
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Actors Sarah Chalke, Zach Braff and Donald Faison have helped "Scrubs" survive for seven seasons despite little support from the network.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/23/2007 4:41:19 PM ET 2007-10-23T20:41:19

Don’t look now — and, judging the ratings, not many people have — but NBC’s stalwart sitcom “Scrubs” returns for its seventh and final season on Thursday.

The little comedy that could is gearing up for a final 18 episodes that will cap an improbable run in which the show remained on the air despite a lack of heavy promotion over the years, some years with little or no support from other sitcoms on the schedule and generally lackluster ratings that left its future in peril at the end of practically every TV season.

“I think this is the year that ‘Scrubs’ really becomes a big hit,” creator Bill Lawrence told a roomful of critics at the annual TV Critics Association press tour in July. “We had always kind of geared our plan towards peaking in the seventh year.”

He said it for a laugh, which he got resoundingly, but he might actually be onto something. While it would be silly to expect that the show will suddenly recoup the audience it had in its heyday (15.9 million viewers in its second season compared to 6.1 million last season), there’s good reason to believe that fans who have stuck it out this long will be rewarded with a memorable send-off.

“Scrubs” (NBC, 9:30 p.m. Thursdays) is merely following in the tradition established by many a long-running sitcom in which the second-to-last season is generally regarded as its worst, the one in which only a handful of episodes rise to the level of quality that once defined it. “Friends,” “Sex and the City” and, dare I say, “Seinfeld,” all fell into the familiar pattern, as do many comedies. And it makes sense. When a show starts to show signs of wear, it becomes apparent that the end is near, and then all the stops are pulled out in an effort to give the show a proper farewell final season.

Video: Faison on hanging up his scrubs “I think there's something really cool about knowing it's your last season,” “Scrubs” star Zach Braff said, sitting next to Lawrence in July. “I mean so many times, you know, by the time you get to the seventh season or what could be the last season, you don't know (it’s the end), and there's something really invigorating about going ‘All right. We've got 18 more.’ I think it's really going to excite the crew and the cast. … I think to go in for the final 18 knowing we're going out with a bang, we're going out with the way Bill wants to end the show, I think, I'm really, really excited to do it.”

Falling off course
“Scrubs” was a general disappointment last season, with the stories falling off course after its near-genius (or “jump the shark,” depending on your perspective) musical episode that featured “Guy Love,” the Broadway-inspired tune in which J.D. and Turk finally articulate the nature of their unique relationship. In many ways, it seemed as though the show’s creative juice was poured into that episode and the rest of the year was nothing but leftovers.

Slideshow: The week in celebrity sightings There was amped up drama between J.D. and his new baby mama, Dr. Kim Briggs (played by Elizabeth Banks), who lied about having a miscarriage and then came back in hopes that J.D. would still accept her. Meanwhile, Elliot was planning and predictably panicked about her wedding to Keith, and the writers tried to make too much of a good thing by taking The Janitor — one of TV’s great comedic supporting characters — and giving him too many of his own story lines. It also suffered from attempting to make political statements with an episode revolving around an Iraq War veteran, getting overly sentimental with Dr. Cox’s son’s baptism, and confusing satire with unoriginality in an episode where Cox effectively imitates Dr. Gregory House.

At the same time, with hits being made last season of “My Name is Earl” and “The Office,” and a unique new experience being offered from “30 Rock,” “Scrubs” was too easily cast off into the background. Several episodes stacked up week after week on DVRs, waiting for some day in the summer when there was nothing better to do than get around to catching up. Ironically, the show that for years struggled because there were no other good sitcoms to pair it with — it even supported itself two seasons ago with back-to-back episodes to carry its own hour — fell victim to the new shows that had finally appeared to shore it up in the schedule.

Taking its rightful place
Now, as “Scrubs” enters its final dozen and a half episodes, it should take its rightful place as one of the more innovative and hilarious sitcoms in recent memory. It’s only natural that over time, some of the characters have deteriorated into mockeries of themselves (Can [rapid eye-blinking] … you hear me … [exaggerated moving of lips and circling of head], Dr. Cox?), and that ratings have fallen, and that it’s lost the edge it once possessed. Those are all consequences of the absurd number of years that sitcoms are expected to remain on the air, and say more about the TV studios’ desire for syndication dollars than they do about the quality of any TV show.

The sixth season ended with a nice twist involving J.D. and Elliot wondering aloud if they’re actually perfect for each other, and it set things up for a run that will tie up the show’s loose ends and likely leave fans with the will-they-or-won’t-they couple being united.

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But who knows?

“We worked out the first two episodes and the last two episodes,” Lawrence told critics, “and then I'm mailing in the middle 14.”

We can trust that Lawrence is making another joke, poking fun at himself and the show in the biting, self-effacing style that has made the show wonderful for several years. So, if that’s any indication of what’s to come from “Scrubs,” fans should rest easy and prepare for a grand finale.

Victor Balta is a writer in Philadelphia.

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