How Bill Lawrence Changed Elliot After The Scrubs Pilot To Better Fit Sarah Chalke

While there are certainly some sitcoms out there that knew exactly what they were doing straight out of the gate, most of our most beloved sitcoms took a while to find their voice. "The Office" didn't really become "The Office" until season 2 came along and softened up Michael's edges. Most of the characters of "Parks and Recreation" were shadows of their future selves in the first season. The first episode of "Seinfeld" didn't even have Elaine in it.

Season 1 of "Scrubs" is no exception, as the writers introduced a bunch of different story threads that were thankfully dropped and then ignored for the rest of the show. In season 1, Dr. Cox thought he was in love with Carla, and this was a major source of tension between him and Turk. This was also famously the season where the Janitor was intended to be a figment of JD's imagination. Most notable is the character of Elliot, who's first portrayed as a confident, overly-competitive person, someone who unapologetically screws over JD multiple times during their first day as interns. As John C. McGinley put it:

"In the pilot, Elliot was written as this horrible bitch, and Sarah was incredibly miscast for that because she doesn't have a bitch bone in her body. But instead of doing what's in vogue right now, which is recasting and reshooting, Billy [Lawrence] rewrote her as a "Butterflies Are Free" Goldie Hawn with foot-in-mouth disease, which she's fantastic at."

(This description of early Elliot sounds harsh written down, so it's important to read that quote in Dr. Cox's voice.)

Softening up Elliot

The pilot introduces Elliot as something of a confident jerk, which makes sense for an episode that's all about JD. "My First Day" is an episode with one real goal: introduce Sacred Heart Hospital from JD's perspective, showing how scary and unforgiving a place it feels like to a brand new intern. "Scrubs" had whacky antics going on from day one, but the hospital setting never felt as real as it did here. Portraying Elliot as someone who had a good handle on her job helped to highlight JD's own insecurities about his first-day struggles.

The problem is that Pilot Elliot didn't work for a long-running ensemble show, so the show started changing her as early as the second episode. It wasn't an immediate change: "My Mentor" still had Elliot butting heads with other people in the hospital. The difference was that Elliot's conflicts with the other characters were now clearly portrayed as a character flaw on her end, not something to make JD feel inadequate about his own job performance. Elliot's confidence in herself was shattered step-by-step throughout the second and third episodes. She only fully became the Elliot we know today in the season's fourth episode, "My Old Lady," which both put an end to her feud with Carla and firmly established that her self-doubt was the main character flaw she needed to work on.

Elliot's long-term character arc

For the next five seasons or so, Elliot's storylines would mostly revolve around her slowly coming into her own as a doctor. Whereas JD and Turk are some of the best among their peers straight away, Elliot struggles hard throughout the first two seasons, often forced to question whether she's even cut out to be a doctor in the first place. She does grow to be an excellent doctor, but it's a long, arduous seasons-long journey.

By season 4, she's finally come into her own to the point where she's become a rival for JD again. After the pilot, JD was always a little bit ahead of Elliot as a medical doctor, but by season 4 she's grown good enough that when Dr. Cox needs to hire someone for a chief resident role, he considers JD and Elliot to be about tied. (He then makes them co-chiefs, which JD does not handle well.)

Perhaps most notably, a lot of Elliot's character development involves her learning to do things she did with ease in the pilot. Pilot Elliot confidently uses her sexuality to manipulate JD. When season 4 Elliot does the same thing to manipulate people, it's seen as a sign of her learning to be more confident in herself. "Look how far she's come," the show seems to be saying, about a character doing something she already did in the first episode.

As John McGinley talked about, Sarah Chalke's strengths as a comedic actress are much better suited for the Elliot we've gotten to know throughout the rest of the show. Although seeing Elliot in the pilot's always jarring on re-watch, the quick change to her character was one of the smartest things the show ever did.