I’ve got a bone to pick with Scrubs. Actually, not with Scrubs itself, but with the circumstances surrounding the classic 2000’s medical comedy series. It’s a problem that I came to recognize about a year ago as I was preparing to do an episode about the show for my movie and TV review podcast. You see, Scrubs is a great show. It really is. It’s got fun and memorable characters, simultaneously heartfelt and subversive comedy, and a varied and catchy soundtrack that could fill an entire iPod with songs worth singing to. I genuinely consider Scrubs one of the most binge-ready shows of all-time and regularly mention it as one of my favorite comedies shows.
But, whenever I boot the show up on Hulu, I can’t help but think about a major problem I have with watching the show in the modern era.
So what’s my problem with the show?
There isn’t an “perfect” way to watch Scrubs in 2020.
Hear me out. I’m not saying there’s a bad way to watch the show, per-say, nor am I saying that the show isn’t worth watching in 2020. I’m simply pointing out that there isn’t a truly ideal way to take in the quality television that is Scrubs. And that problem starts with the lack of a quality remaster for the series.
You see, Scrubs came out and was aired on NBC in the early 2000’s, the final stretch for standard definition broadcasting. As a result of this, seven of the nine series of the show were never aired in HD, nor were they edited to accommodate that resolution or the bump to a 16:9 aspect ratio that came along with it. Essentially, with the advent of HDTV’s in the mid 2000’s, things started to change and Scrubs’ presentation quickly started to look dated. There’s simply no denying this, and as much as I love retro/standard definition media, the shows 480p presentation and 4:3 aspect ratio probably does it more harm than good these days. For casual TV viewers, starting a classic episode of Scrubs means having to deal with “bad quality” and watching the show in “a box” as opposed to in crystal clear HD and in widescreen and, as shallow a statement as that may sound, you can’t really blame them for wanting to watch something in the current standard for entertainment.
Which leads to the question: Why not remaster it? That’s an option, isn’t it?
Why yes, it is!
According to ShotOnWhat.com, Scrubs was shot on Super 16 film, a format that (roughly) translates into a resolution that can at least rival that of a 1080p video. On top of that, Super 16 also has the benefit of natively recording in widescreen, which means that the shows originally 4:3 presentation can easily be expanded, assuming it was framed for 16:9 to begin with. After all, we don’t want another Buffy The Vampire Slayer remaster, do we? And even if a 16:9 version of the show is impossible for framing reasons, Scrubs wouldn’t be the only show to get an HD rerelease that’s framed in 4:3. Arguably my all-time favorite show, Twin Peaks, has been available in beautiful High Definition quality for years now, while also retaining its 4:3 aspect ratio.
So why hasn’t it happened?
Well, simply put, it probably just doesn’t have the sort of return of investment (ROI) to justify the labor of remastering a show that ran for 182 episodes and was never much of a titan in the ratings. When it comes to taking a Standard Definition program and remastering it in HD, there isn’t a CSI-style “enhance” button that can blow the series up to high definition. Instead, the series would likely need to be meticulously re-edited using the original negatives and assets from when the show was produced, in order to try and perfectly match the series we know and love. On top of that, FX shots would need to also be reconstructed as much as possible, recreated with new assets or techniques to closely resemble the original shots, or rely on upscaled shots from the DVD release of the series to compensate for any missing shots that can’t be recreated. It’s a huge undertaking that doesn’t typically happen for television shows, unless they’re touted as pop culture landmarks or are a part of “prestige” TV. And in the case of a show as long running as Scrubs, it’s likely that doing this won’t come cheap either, given the number of episodes it has and the number of licensed songs in its soundtrack that would likely need to be relicensed (a bit more on that in a second).
So, while the peeks at an HD version of Scrubs that we saw in it’s final season (and spin-off that refused to call itself one) are salivatingly easy on the eyes, an HD remaster of Scrubs is largely out of the cards. A guy can dream though (and dream I do, it’s actually a dream of mine to get to work on an HD version of the show and to dive into the series with as much love as The X-Files HD remaster got).
Until then, there’s always streaming the standard definition episodes…
That’s not to say the series isn’t inaccessible though. Quite the contrary, it’s actually easy to watch Scrubs online due to it being available for instant streaming on Hulu and Amazon Prime in standard definition. Which brings me to my next problem…
Streaming a standard definition show on an HD television is less than ideal.
I watch a lot of SD content still and let me tell you, it isn’t pretty. The bigger your screen and the higher the resolution of it, the worse off you’re gonna be. Without diving too deep into the technical side of things, standard def content goes through a lot of upscaling to fill a 4K television. In fact, a 480p signal has to be upscaled roughly 20 times to take up the appropriate amount of room on a 4K screen. Have you ever tried zooming into something 20 times? Suffice to say, the picture looks (as the kids say) like it was shot on a potato.
That, in itself, isn’t the worst of it though. With the right settings on your TV, the right connection between a streaming device and your TV, and a device that can handle some of the upscaling before your TV has to do some of the dirty work itself, you can get some pretty alright looking results out of upscaling SD content.
But, I think some of the other problems that come with watching Scrubs through a streaming service are more likely to (at least somewhat) outweigh the convenience of its accessibility.
For me, the biggest deal breaker with watching Scrubs on Hulu (which is admittedly the way I usually watch Scrubs) is the bitrate.
At this time, Hulu streams SD content at a bitrate of 1.5-3Mbps, which is over half of the maximum video bitrate of a DVD, and below the standard DVD bitrate which fluctuates between 3-6Mbps. In layman’s terms, this video is compressed. Darker/higher action scenes are going to have more visual artifacts on it, some colors will appear inaccurately or simplified on screen, and details can be buried under a haze of data-management.
That’s not to say that the DVD’s are going to look jaw-dropingly better than what’s on Hulu, but is definitely an improvement. It also helps that the DVDs for Scrubs have its original soundtrack in place.
This one is a minor gripe for me and is one that I’m less qualified to talk about, so I’ll keep it brief. Essentially, the version of Scrubs on streaming has different songs edited into the background of multiple episodes/scenes. This was likely done to avoid having to renegotiate licensing those songs (I told you that would come up again!) and honestly, while I’m bummed about some of the changes and how they dampen some of the shows better moments, I’ve grown largely accustomed to them and am fine with them if it means being able to conveniently watch the show. The musical changes don’t change the context of every scene they’ve been made to, so while having the original music would have been great, I’d hardly consider it a dealbreaker for me. There are even some pretty funny moments on the streaming version of the series where the subtitles will incorrectly attribute a song that’s playing in the background of a song with it’s DVD counterpart, as opposed to the stock music knock-off of the song that it was replaced with.
But ultimately, while Scrubs definitely looks better on DVD than it does on streaming, it still has one major problem.
DVD’s are inconvenient in 2020.
Look, I love DVDs. I’m saying this as I sit next to a literal bookshelf of DVDs and VHS tapes in the basement of my childhood home. I still buy DVDs and think that the format has a lot going for it. Pound for pound, dollar for dollar, I love physical media and can never see myself giving up on actually getting to own TV/movies in the form of a compact disk.
But dear God, are DVDs an inconvenience in 2020.
My main issue with trying to watch Scrubs on DVD is that, while clearly better than what’s on Hulu/Amazon Prime, the improved picture quality isn’t better enough to justify relying on a disc to watch the entire series.
And this isn’t just because a single digit difference in bitrate isn’t that much of a feast on the eyes; this really just comes down to the the resolution still being magnified by 20 in order to upscale the content to fit a 4k TV. And while I’ve gotten better results by using the old 720p TV I had in high school to watch the series, along with the Standard Definition CRT TV my Dad had from when I was a kid to get what I genuinely believe is the best picture quality I’ll ever see for the show… none of that is remotely practical for the average viewer.
That CRT setup I just mentioned; that’s, no question, the best way to watch the show. The resolution matches what DVDs are capable of outputting, the scan lines that CRT’s are synonymous with are able to help hide compression/artifacts in the picture, and the fuzz and warmth of an old-school TV go a long way to really drive in the nostalgic feelings I have towards the series. For anyone versed in retro gaming, watching Scrubs on DVD with a CRT TV makes as much sense as playing the NES on a Sony Trinitron. Everything is compatible with everything, all is right in the world. Cue Lazlo Bane.
But how many people have a CRT laying around? And how many people are even gonna be able to convince their friends to watch something on a DVD these days? If part of the appeal of Scrubs is how great of a show it is to unwind after a long day at the office, doesn’t jumping through those hoops to get the best viewing experience for the show nullify how comforting the show is?
While this is the ideal way to watch the show, it’s far from perfect.
Is there another way to watch Scrubs?
Yep! One more! What was that format the series initially aired on?
Yes, Scrubs is still in syndication. In fact, it’s on pretty often, from what I can find online. There’s just one problem…
It’s in widescreen.
This one really bothers me. Like I mentioned earlier, Scrubs was shot on Super 16 film, which natively captures a widescreen image. This would, somewhat instinctively, make you think that Scrubs being on TV in widescreen would have to mean that it’s using that entire Super 16 frame, right?
Because the series was prepared for broadcast in the age of 4:3 entertainment, that extra information on the sides of the frame was never used in the show. So, aside from being a 480p upscale of the show that’s being broadcast in what’s likely to be 720p (TV is still typically broadcast in 720p or an interlaced 1080i signal), the show is being “converted” into widescreen through image zooming. That’s to say that the picture is being cropped on the top and bottom of the frame, similar to the recent controversy surrounding The Simpsons’ presentation on Disney Plus/FXNow, leading to weirdly in-your-face framing for the series.
Frankly, this is the worst way to watch the show. Besides the mild inconvenience of not being able to watch it whenever you want, you’re technically getting “less” of the show due to the cropping. You’re also watching a very compromised version of the series that is being presented in a way that the shows cast and crew definitely didn’t intend for it to be shown in. And as if that isn’t enough, you’re still getting an upscaled version of the episode, complete with the various compression issues I mentioned earlier. If anything, that unnecessary cropping is deteriorating the picture quality even further, but zooming in by an additional 50% to prevent pillarboxing (those black bars you see when you watch 4:3 content on a widescreen TV) on the sides. You do get the original music though, so… that’s a thing.
So what’s the takeaway here?
The main takeaway here is that, despite all of my vamping above, Scrubs is still top tier comedy. It’s such a good, well crafted series about friendship, coming of age and medicine, that I can complain about how much of a pain it is to watch with modern technology and follow that all up with a casual, “but it’s you good. You NEED to watch it!”
Even without a “perfect” way to enjoy the series, I can’t recommend it enough. JD, Turk, Elliot, Carla, Dr. Cox and the rest of them are some of my favorite fictional characters of all time and I genuinely find new things to love about the series every time I watch it.
*cues sentimental wrapping-up-the-blog-post monologue music*
And that’s pretty special when you think about it. We often view flaws as reasons to not enjoy something but, in some cases, it might be worth overlooking them when we think we’ve got something special on our hands.
For me, I’ve come to be okay with dealing with compressed image quality when it means getting to watch one of my favorite comedies on the subway to work. After all, it’s not like there’s some evil suit at a TV Network somewhere that’s actively trying to prevent us from watching this show. On some level, I’m actually grateful to be able to watch Scrubs to begin with, to be able to do it with some semblance of convenience, and to be first-worldy enough to be able to complain about that convenience on the internet.
I dunno, that’s just my take on things. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go listen to Zach Braff and Donald Faison’s incredible Scrubs rewatch podcast, Fake Doctors, Real Friends.
I hope you enjoyed this article! If you think you can stomach more of my rambling about how much I love Scrubs, feel free to check out our podcast episode on the series! I’m always working on new episodes of the podcast so if you ever need anything to listen to, feel free to check out the show on your favorite podcast player!