On a bright August L.A. day, the cast and crew of Scrubs are shooting what they assume will be the medical comedy’s second-to-last episode ever. (The eighth season premieres Tuesday, Jan. 6, at 9 p.m. on its new home at ABC.) And yet star Zach Braff is cheerful as he takes stock of all the silliness he’s already endured that morning on the famously surreal show: ”I’ve had my face covered in blueberries. I’ve floated across the parking lot. I’ve eaten pudding. As you can see, no one is really thinking about the inevitable.”
Inevitable? Not so fast. For all its time on life support, Scrubs never quite lands in the morgue. ”Over the last three years,” says costar Sarah Chalke, ”we’ve thought, This is the last season.” Its middling ratings (last season it averaged 5.8 million viewers, down from a high of 16 million in season 2) weren’t helped by the fact that NBC shuffled it through at least nine time slots in seven years. When NBC finally pulled the plug after last season, ABC leaped in to resuscitate, ordering 18 more episodes. Even for a cast and crew used to saying goodbye, the last-minute reprieve was a shock. ”It was a gift from God,” says John C. McGinley, who plays the irascible Dr. Cox. And the prognosis gets better: There’s a chance ABC could bring some form of Scrubs back for a ninth season.
The secret to the quirky single-camera comedy’s longevity? Its loyal fan base: ”No matter what time slot [NBC] put us in, for the most part the exact same amount of people always watched it,” says Braff. The cult has grown through DVD sales and syndication, keeping Scrubs profitable for its owner, ABC Studios. (Hence the ABC pickup.) ”Even with a couple of high cast salaries, Scrubs is still cheaper than most first-year single-camera comedies,” says creator Bill Lawrence. So while Scrubs doesn’t have a realistic chance of taking down its time-slot competition, CBS’ unstoppable Mentalist, it doesn’t need to in order to still make money. ”The landscape is in such turmoil right now,” says ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson. ”Everybody is going to have to look at [renewing shows] through a different lens than they have in years past.”
If Scrubs does return, it’ll be in a slightly different form, and without star Braff and Lawrence, who have both announced they’re moving on: Braff to movies, Lawrence to develop new projects. McGinley is the only cast member to state unequivocally that he’d come back, but none of his costars say they won’t return, either. ”There aren’t a lot of comedy jobs in town,” says Lawrence. ”It would be great to keep this group working. But it would have to be on something that wouldn’t [be] a pale imitation of the show.” In the meantime, the cast cherishes their final moments in the old abandoned hospital that’s housed the production since day one. Chalke says they recently discovered a notice tucked away on a wall stating the building was coated with asbestos. She laughs, ”We’re all like, It’ll totally have been worth it.”