Anyone that knows me knows that I love Scrubs. It’s one of those shows that I tend to always be in the mood for and that I rewatch at least once or twice ever year. And a lot of why I think Scrubs is such a great show is because of how it’s creator and show-runner Bill Lawrence manages to mix pathos (the emotion-drive Socratic mode of persuasion) with raunchy and creative humor in a way that services both my stupid human emotions and my funny bone.
And while the show has a number of characters that I regularly quote and relate to, one of the characters that I’ve always had an affinity for was Perry Ulysses Cox, the gruff/tough/push-has-come-to-shove Doctor who starts in Scrubs as an attending. I can’t get enough of John C McGinley’s portrayal of the character and his tough-love mentorship over Zach Braff’s JD.
I’m definitely not alone in this either, as Dr. Cox is easily one of the most popular characters in Scrubs and is probably just as, if not more popular and beloved than it’s main protagonist JD. While JD is a whimsical and somewhat effeminate lead, Cox works as his counterpoint. Another way of putting things is that JD is Bambi and Dr. Cox is… I don’t know, the battered and weathered husk of a deer that hits the gym every day?
Does that work? That works right? I haven’t seen Bambi in a while.
Simply put, Dr. Cox is the strict disciplinarian and role model in JD’s life. He serves as a surrogate father for our character and helps take him from being a meek intern, to being a successful Doctor. And today, I’m going to explore what I think is the centerpiece of Dr. Cox’s character and what made him successful in being Newbie’s mentor, as well as a bit of a cautionary tale for him.
But first, let’s discuss Dr. Cox himself. We all know that he can be a little hard to deal with and that he tends to butt-heads with the other Doctors at Sacred Heart, which stems from his very cynical world view that people are ostensively bad/evil.
It’s a bit of a narcissistic take to have on humanity, but it falls perfectly in line with who Dr. Cox is as a person and how his life experiences shaped him into being the person that he is. For example, we know that he had a pretty abusive childhood, thanks to a season 5 episode where we meet Perry’s sister Paige. So, to keep things simple, we know that Dr. Cox is both jaded and tired of being a doctor, we also know that he’s cynical and doesn’t exactly hold people in high regard, and we can assume that part of this is due to his experiences growing up and how he never had a mentor of his own. Except that he actually did have a mentor of his own, as we saw in a Season 1 episode. Although his mentor was a bit of a dick, so that’s actually a moot point.
However through knowing JD, Dr. Cox actually starts to change a bit over the course of Scrubs, which is what I’ll be getting into right about now. When JD starts at Sacred Heart, it doesn’t take long for him to cling to Dr. Cox for moral support. And while Dr. Cox seemingly doesn’t want anything to do with JD, he continues to keep an eye on the young doctor. It’s mostly so that JD doesn’t accidentally kill someone while he’s on the job, but it’s repeatedly established over the course of season 1 that Dr. Cox genuinely likes JD and wants to see him succeed, even if he’s too emotionally constipated to admit it. As for why Dr. Cox accepts JD as his pupil, season 1 also manages to hint towards a possible answer. In the first episode that features Dr. Cox’s ex-wife Jordan, she mentions that JD reminds her a lot of Perry. When we meet Jordan’s brother, we even see that Perry and Ben have a relationship that, in a lot of ways, mirrors Turk and JD’s bromance. In my opinion, I think this is why Dr. Cox’s relationship with JD is different from the one that he has with, say, Elliot or any of the other medical interns and Doctors. He probably sees a lot of himself, or the person he either used to be or could have been, in JD and wants to make sure that JD doesn’t lose that. Sure, JD annoys the crap out of Dr. Cox, but he also recognizes his potential as a doctor and his capacity for empathy, which is something that Cox struggles with personally.
But, conveniently enough for “Welcome Back Coxer,” his relationship with JD also manages to help refine his ability as a doctor too. Through spending so much time with JD, and watching him grow from being an intern to an attending, Dr. Cox learns how to relate to his patients, fix his relationship with Jordan, and how to stop getting in his own way all the time. Essentially, being a mentor allows Dr. Cox to help himself through helping JD. It’s kinda counter-intuitive, but it asserts that Dr. Cox is a smart and capable person who knows the answers to his problems, but just needed some help recognizing that he did. JD’s just the rock that Dr. Cox needed to ground himself in the professional world and to help him keep it together.
But what makes him cautionary? Well, Dr. Cox tends to get in his own way a lot and, when we’re first introduced to him in Scrubs, he’s a little rough around the edges. He lives in a sterile/impersonally decorated apartment, he drinks excessively, and he uses his difficult/hard-to-handle demeanor as a means of distancing himself from the other Doctors. Only, as we get to know him over the course of the show, as well as watch him grow as a person, we see that none of this is really who Dr. Cox is. Yes, he still lives in an apartment that is clearly a retrofitted OR and he still drinks a lot, but we see him engaging in less behaviors that are designed to keep people away from him. When Jordan leaves to visit her mother, we actually see Dr. Cox in a vulnerable place for once, when he’s shown being actively lonely. And in season 8, after becoming the chief of medicine, we see that Dr. Cox actually misses spending time with his patients, and is equally disappointed to miss out on spending time with his son Jack.
I guess the point I’m trying to make is that, because Dr. Cox sees so much of himself in JD, he represents what could have happened to JD if he hadn’t served as a mentor to him. Without Dr. Cox’s guidance, or had he failed to be a good role model/secondary father figure for JD, he probably would have ended up a lot like the Dr. Cox we met at the beginning of the series. And I think Dr. Cox knows this or at least comes to know this after his second encounter with JD’s brother, who tells him to stop JD from becoming another cynical doctor.
At the end of the day and whether you agree with my assessment of the character or not, Dr. Cox is a great character. He’s one of the funniest and most memorable characters on the show and I genuinely believe that deserves to go down as one of the great TV characters of the 21st century because of how flawed and human he is. He’s also just a great example of a character that has a great capacity and desire to feel, even if the act of feeling terrifies him as much as it clearly does.
Hope you enjoyed this article on Dr. Cox! If you wanna check out more Scrubs related stuff, I’d definitely recommend checking out my podcast episode on the show! You can listen to it below, or from your favorite podcast player!