“My Big Brother” is quietly one of Scrubs‘ more experimental episodes; though it would often later play with form in episodes like season four’s “My Life in Four Cameras” and season six’s “My Musical,” the sixth episode of Scrubs‘ second season is a rather pointed rejection of typical comedy narratives of its era. It’s an inherently unsatisfying episode, one built upon a premise of reflection and disappointment, rather than enlightenment and entertainment – a rather welcome shift from the disappointing “My New Coat,” in what ends up an unexpectedly rewarding holiday episode.
The ending of “My Big Brother” offers a brief glimpse of Scrubs‘ occasionally transcendent ability to ground its slapstick comedy with devastating humanity.
It’s Halloween at Sacred Heart, and while someone in a gorilla costume is running around causing ruckus, “My Big Brother” introduces one of its best guest characters into the fray: JD’s brother Dan, played by a relatively-unknown Tom Kavanaugh (pre-Love Monkey but post-Ed). Dan’s effectiveness as a character over the years would wax and wane with Scrubs‘ general quality, but his introduction is a jump start to the flagging thematic foundation of season two, presenting an array of complexities in their familial relationship, in a short 22-minute span.
Though it is disappointing to see Elliot used as a cheap device to kick start a deeper conflict between the brothers (she literally does not exist outside this story in “My Big Brother”), it does help in building out their dynamic quickly and effectively. Tom taking an interest in Elliot allows the deeper brotherly frictions instantly bubble to the surface, tapping directly into JD’s often-suffocating confidence issues.
He immediately begins to underhandedly insult his brother’s life: while JD’s become a successful young resident, Dan’s struggled to find his way, working as a bartender while still living in their mother’s home. Though JD doesn’t exactly state these facts in a cruel way, it’s easy to read his description of Dan’s life as condescending – an idea that’s reinforced when he tells Dan he thinks his easy-going facade is a cover for how disappointed in himself he is.
It is a striking ending, JD’s illusions of his all-powerful older sibling literally fading away into reality, as Dan drives off the Sacred Heart lot in someone else’s luxury vehicle. “My Big Mouth” offers no resolution or moralistic lesson, giving sharp definition to the disappointment JD, and now the audience, has to sit with. There’s no easy way to bridge the fundamental gaps between JD and Dan – and to its credit, Scrubs doesn’t try to sugar coat their complicated relationship.
JD and Dan spend a lot of the episode making jokes at each other’s expenses; what the other plot of this episode does is give voice to the reasons behind those jokes, the constant needling at each other’s expense. Cox, ever the enlightened mentor, convinces Turk to make a bet on the results of a patient’s surgery; when Turk celebrates winning the bet, Dr. Cox immediately undercuts his victory, pointing out he was willing to make a $20 bet on a life and death situation.
Having already been ostracized by Cox for turning down an invitation to a different patient’s funeral, Turk becomes insistent on proving how serious he is about being a doctor. He scolds Carla and Cox alike when they make jokes about patients, and tries to attend the funeral he previously declined invitation to.
Through two acts, Cox and Turk’s arguments seem to form a dissection of their toxic masculinity towards each other: eventually, when Cox delivers a slightly-too-pointed speech to Turk, it reveals itself as something much more nuanced and emotional. Cox’s dismissals of Turk’s behavior were about something more than simply fucking around with an inferior colleague; it was Dr. Cox reminding Turk about the weight of the work they do, and how important it is to find the balance between hope and despair.
Watching Dr. Wen tell a family about their loved one’s death, Cox presents a rather powerful little anecdote: “once he’s done in there, he leaves and goes back to work. Do you think any of them [the family] are going back to work today?” It taps into some of Scrubs‘ deeper thoughts on humanity, giving voice to JD/Dan’s use of humor as deflection, and what an important role it can serve, especially as we get older.
Laughter as release of inner tension of the soul is something many religions and philosophies explore – it is also a foundation of drama and comedy, a tool in which the cruel truths of life can taste slightly less bitter, and feel a little less consuming. In “My Big Brother,” it serves both purposes, observing how humor can offer a fleeting (though false) sense of closure, an important defensive device for traumatic or revealing moments in life – and does so to great effect, with both Dan’s departure and Cox’s overwrought monologue.
Although it holds the audience’s hand through the third act, it doesn’t diminish the impact of the final five minutes – which smartly ends on a humorous note, with Kelso revealing himself as the gorilla causing trouble around the hospital. Even that scene is tinged by the haunting reminder of Kelso’s time working in the same rooms as Turk and Cox: in a way, his escapist embrace of his costumed shenanigans are the ultimate reinforcement of how fundamentally important it is to remember to laugh.
It’s really a rather profound image to end the episode on; it’s a quiet moment Kelso has to himself, cackling as he drives away from the hospital, gorilla-ed hands on the steering wheel. It’s the one moment “My Big Brother” doesn’t try to explain itself: we see him laugh, and it immediately cuts to credits, letting us sit with the thought of how Kelso’s projections of humor throughout the episode, might belay a much darker image of the baggage he’s gathered over the years (both working in the hospital, and his previous time fighting in the Korean War).
Sure, it would be easy to chalk it all up to “Kelso’s a dick”; but there’s a reason so much attention is paid to the identity of the gorilla as these two main stories play out. It’s not just for the reveal that Kelso’s been fucking with people all day; just knowing how tall The Janitor eliminates him as a candidate, plus the episode constantly cuts from the gorilla exiting a scene, to Kelso in the next shot – it doesn’t really try to build a big mystery around this final reveal.
It’s not really a reveal at all: it’s Kelso, alone in his car, enjoying a hearty laugh about the pranks he pulled all day – which in theory, should make it feel like a tacked-on ending. But it resonates with such emotional clarity, such a sharp perception of an inherently outlandish character, it’s hard to ignore – it is quietly one of the young comedy’s early defining moments, ending “My Big Brother” with a brief glimpse of Scrubs‘ occasionally transcendent ability to ground its slapstick comedy with devastating humanity.
- Scrubs reviews are back??? Scrubs reviews are back!!! If you missed the first run of episodes I covered late last year, you can catch up here.
- This episode opens with Turk and JD debating what kind of shower curtain to buy; a later scene reveals Turk definitely won that debate.
- Dr. Murphy is Scrubs‘ Pagliacci.
- Goddamnit, I laugh every time Kelso walks by Cox and casually says “Ayyy, numb nuts!”
- Elliot played tuba in her school’s band, which led her to have massive forearms at a young age. I don’t know what to do with this fact, and neither does Scrubs.
- “What’d you do, bathe her?”
- Dan’s mention of “frisbee golf” is the earliest reference I can think of the sport in popular culture. (as a recently-converted disc golfer, I’m always fascinated to see it appear in mainstream media pre-2016).