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“You Don’t Drink Scotch”: An Appreciation of ‘Scrubs’ and the Inimitable Dr. Cox

Capturing the essence of one of TV’s most underrated series in a scene that navigates the show’s trademark balance of sad and silly

Ringer illustration

This is some housekeeping information that may be helpful as you work your way through the rest of this article:

  • Scrubs was a television show that ran for nine seasons from 2001 to 2010.
  • It was about a group of people working in a hospital called Sacred Heart.
  • There were many, many characters on the show, but the main seven were: Dr. John “J.D.” Dorian (a staff intern who eventually becomes an attending physician; he’s also the show’s narrator); Dr. Christopher Turk (a staff intern who eventually becomes the chief of surgery); Dr. Elliot Reid (a staff intern who eventually moves over to private practice); Carla Espinosa (a nurse who eventually becomes the head nurse); Dr. Bob Kelso (the chief of medicine who eventually retires); Dr. Perry Cox (an attending physician who oversees the development of J.D. and Elliot and several others; he eventually becomes the chief of medicine); and Janitor (a janitor who remains a janitor the entire time).
  • All of their relationships get mushed together and smushed around, but by the end of the series a fair evaluation of them would be: J.D. and Turk are best friends; Turk and Carla are husband and wife (and father and mother); Elliot and J.D. are on-again-off-again love interests who (we’re led to believe) eventually get married; Dr. Cox and J.D. are in a mentor-mentee relationship that J.D. openly loves and cherishes and that Dr. Cox openly hates but secretly loves and cherishes; Janitor hates J.D.; and Dr. Kelso and Dr. Cox dislike each other but occasionally are aligned philosophically.
  • The show used to be on Netflix but now it’s on Hulu.
  • No show has ever been better than Scrubs at pivoting from being totally and completely silly in one moment to dropping a fucking anvil of sadness on your chest in the next. It’s remarkable how great every character was at doing that exact thing. Even on your third, fourth, and fifth rewatch, they’re still able to sweep your feet out from under you. Judy Reyes as Carla could do it (you can see her do it in a sad way in this scene where she has to say goodbye to someone she loves). Zach Braff as J.D. could do it (you can see him do it in a happy way in this scene where he watches his future play out on a projector screen). Dr. Cox could do it (more on this in a minute). Even several of the guest stars could do it (you can see Glynn Turman do it in a substantial way in this scene where he plays a guy who struggles with accepting that he’s going to die). And yet, despite that fact:
  • Scrubs has never gotten the widespread critical praise that it deserves. And I say that on a macro scale (the show only won two Emmys during its tenure, neither of which were in any of the big-ticket categories) and on a micro scale (when The Ringer created its list in 2018 of “The 100 Best TV Episodes of the Century,” Scrubs appeared on the list exactly zero times).
  • There is potentially an argument to be made that Scrubs is the most underrated TV show that’s ever existed (and if not the most underrated, then perhaps the most underappreciated, which is a different thing).
  • But I don’t want to do that right now.
  • I just want to talk about Dr. Cox.
  • Specifically, I just want to talk about one specific Dr. Cox moment.

There has never been a time when I asked someone whether they liked Scrubs and they responded with something like, “I mean, it’s OK, I guess.” There have only been times where I asked someone whether they liked Scrubs and they responded with something like (a) “I’ve never seen it,” or (b) “Obviously I like it because it’s beautiful. Why would you even ask me that question, you stupid idiot?”

The one specific Dr. Cox moment happens during the fifth season in an episode called “My Fallen Idol.” There are a few different story lines happening all at once, but the primary one is that Dr. Cox has fallen into a state of severe depression after three of his patients died following organ transplant surgeries.

(The three deaths happened in the episode prior. There were two patients in the ICU who needed organs immediately or they were going to die. A third patient in the ICU also need an organ but, unlike the other two, he still had a few weeks before things were going to get serious. Dr. Cox et al. got the organs they needed from a woman who had died of an apparent drug overdose, which J.D. was taking especially hard because he thought he’d missed an opportunity to save her life. It turned out, though, that the woman had died of rabies and not a drug overdose, which absolved J.D. but put Dr. Cox in the blender because that meant the organs were bad and he was the one who OK’d using them for the three transplant surgeries.

J.D. was able to talk Dr. Cox off the ledge after the first two patients died, explaining that they were going to die whether or not the organs took. It was a callback to a scene earlier in the episode when Dr. Cox made sure to try and help J.D. feel better when he thought he was partially responsible for the woman’s overdose. But then—and this is a thing Scrubs did from time to time—they just kept on pressing the all-caps SADNESS button over and over again on you, killing off the third guy and sending Dr. Cox spiraling. He walks out of the ICU in tears, his heart in a billion pieces and his otherwise broad and powerful shoulders shrunken and mushy. John C. McGinley is undeniably brilliant as Dr. Cox in that stretch, from when the patients start dying up to when he can’t take it anymore. But it’s at the end of the next episode when we see precisely how gifted of an actor he is. Which, again, is the moment I want to talk about. So …)

The one specific Dr. Cox moment happens during the fifth season in an episode called “My Fallen Idol.” There are a few different story lines happening all at once, but the primary one is that Dr. Cox has fallen into a state of severe depression after three of his patients died following organ transplant surgery. He’s stuck at home and he can’t get off the couch and he can’t stop drinking. It’s all bad and miserable and awful and unbearable. After five seasons of the show building him up into a carved-out-of-marble Medicine Adonis, he’s just there, limp and lifeless, eyes red and swollen, his body cocooned in a blanket. He’s of course technically the same person, but you can barely recognize him. Carla comes over and tries to cheer him up. Dr. Kelso comes over and tries to cheer him up. Turk comes over and tries to cheer him up. Elliot and her boyfriend come over and try to cheer him up. Nobody’s ever able to stir anything out of him other than emptiness or anger. He doesn’t say a single word to anyone. And then J.D. shows up.

Of all of the people on Scrubs, nobody was better than J.D., played by Braff, at navigating the deep water of a serious scene with Dr. Cox. J.D. walks in, sits down, “Something Else” by Gary Jules starts playing in the background, and then Braff and McGinley put on a fucking top-level masterclass in acting.

J.D. gives a monologue about how he’s always wanted to be in Dr. Cox’s apartment and how he actually did sneak in one time during a Super Bowl party, and how he’d avoided going to see Dr. Cox until that moment because he was scared to see him in whatever condition it was he knew he was going to find Dr. Cox in. And Braff is perfect in the moment. His eyes avoid McGinley’s, except for when they don’t. His body is curved inward, open and vulnerable, same as always, except with a certain amount of strength this time. He makes a couple of soft jokes without ever really laughing at them, but he does it in a voice and tone that lets you know he understands the seriousness of the situation, and that there will be a larger point he’ll be arriving at soon. And then he finally says what it is he’s gone there to say.

“Anyway, I tried to convince myself the reason I didn’t come earlier was because of you coming into work drunk,” J.D. says, not looking at Dr. Cox until he gets to the you coming into work drunk part. “But that’s not it,” he continues, and he sits with what he’s about to say before he says it. “I was scared. I guess after all this time, I still think of you as, like, this superhero that will help me out of any situation I’m in. I needed that. But, that’s my problem, you know? And I’ll deal with that.”

Dr. Cox doesn’t speak. He just keeps listening.

“I guess I came over here to tell you …” says J.D.—and he looks at Dr. Cox again right here because he needs for him to know how substantial this next part is—“... how proud of you I am. Not because you did the best you could for those patients. But because after 20 years of being a doctor, when things go badly, you still take it this hard. And I gotta tell you, man, I mean, that’s the kind of doctor I want to be.”

Again, Braff is perfect in that moment. Just truly, truly perfect. The faces he makes, the looks he gives, the intonations he allows for certain words to have; it’s all flawless. It’s an actor who is in complete control. And McGinley, who has zero words during the monologue, sits there and absorbs it. And he’s perfect too. You can see every single thing his character is supposed to be thinking, feeling, experiencing. Every blink feels mammoth, every gaze feels like a 15-minute soliloquy. There’s pain, there’s anguish, there’s hurt, and then finally, after J.D. is done, there’s hope. And love. And the beginning of light. It’s remarkable to watch. It’s dazzling the first time, and then somehow it just gets more and more impressive with each subsequent viewing. He puts your body up on a rack and then twists it all to bits without ever even having to talk.

J.D. pours himself a glass of a brown liquor on the table, takes a sip, and then immediately regrets it. And that’s when Dr. Cox finally talks. “You don’t drink scotch,” he says, stretching out the word “scotch” until it’s a two-syllable word. It’s an innocuous sentence, but only because what he’s saying isn’t really what he’s saying. He’s saying “You don’t drink scotch,” but what he’s SAYING is “I’m going to make it out of this now because of you.” How many actors are able to do something like? How many actors are able to say as much as he does there without even saying it? (“Not a lot” is the answer.)

The next scene is Dr. Cox in a bar with all of the important people from Sacred Heart, everyone celebrating because they know Dr. Cox is going to be all right. J.D. is sitting alone at the bar watching Dr. Cox mingle. He turns away and keeps to himself. Dr. Cox notices him, walks over, then very simply says, “J.D.” It’s one of a very small number of times he says J.D.’s name out loud. J.D. turns around and sees him. Dr. Cox can barely look at him. J.D. turns back around and stares forward. Dr. Cox gathers up all of his courage and all of his appreciation, moving aside years and years of jabs and insults he’s lobbed at J.D., then finishes his thought: “Thank you.” He waits for J.D. to respond (“You’re welcome”), then pats him on the shoulder and walks away.

The whole scene, from the time J.D. walks into the apartment until the time Dr. Cox thanks him at the bar, is less than three minutes. And Dr. Cox says only seven words during that time. But it’s all you need to watch to know that McGinley is a gifted actor, and that his Dr. Cox is a transcendent TV character.