Zach Braff Thinks This Scrubs Episode Is One Of The Series' Greatest

Look up any list of the saddest TV episodes of all time, and you're likely to come across a few entries over and over. Usual suspects include "Papa's Got a Brand New Excuse," the episode of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," in which Will Smith delivers perhaps the most heart-breaking line in his career ("How come he don't want me, man?"). Then there's "The Body" from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," an episode that mostly forsakes the supernatural in order to explore the all-too-real pain of a group of people mourning the death of a loved one from natural causes. And who could forget the kick in the teeth that is "Jurassic Bark" from "Futurama," a half-hour of TV that ends with a tear-jerking montage set to "I Will Wait For You" from Jacques Demy's classic melancholy musical "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" as the cherry atop its sundae of emotional agony?

There are a number of "Scrubs" episodes one could pick from for such a list. For as unmitigatedly comical as Bill Lawrence's medical sitcom is, it's still set in a workplace where death is a common occurrence. But if one were limited to a single choice, you'd be hard-pressed not go to with season 3, episode 14, "My Screw Up." It not only features one of the most poignant moments in the show's entire run, but it's also a pretty great episode of TV overall. In fact, J.D. himself, Zach Braff, went so far as to call it one of the series' "greatest" episodes in a 2006 interview with IGN.

My screw up

"My Screw Up" marked the awaited return of season 1 guest star Brendan Fraser as Ben Sullivan, Dr. Cox's former brother-in-law and one of the few people capable of getting close to John C. McGinley's irascible physician (because not even Dr. Cox could resist Fraser's charms). Two years after being treated for leukemia, Ben is back in town to celebrate the first birthday of his sister Jordan and Cox's son Jack. As much as Cox is troubled to learn Ben hasn't had a routine screening since his cancer went into remission, he seems to be in good health and agrees to have J.D. check him out while Cox runs an errand. When he comes back, however, Cox is enraged to learn J.D. was unable to resuscitate a patient who went into cardiac arrest during Cox's absence.

Cut to two days later, and we find out Cox has been working at Sacred Hearth Hospital non-stop since then, stricken with guilt and regret over what happened. "My Screw Up" would have already been a pretty strong episode had it merely stopped there and focused solely on the toll hospitals can take on the mental health of their employees (who know all it takes is a minor slip-up or brief distraction for a patient to die under their care). Except it takes things further by having Cox finally relent to Ben's good-humored efforts to get him to attend Jack's party. He also apologizes to J.D. for blaming him for his patient's sudden death, and, with a little encouragement from Ben, begins to forgive himself for being unable to prevent an event that was beyond his control.

'Where do you think we are?'

It's at this point that J.D. gently pulls Dr. Cox out of his mental haze, asking him, "Where do you think we are?" As Cox looks around, he slowly realizes (or, rather, accepts) he's not at a little kid's birthday bash. He's at a cemetery and dressed for a funeral — specifically, Ben's funeral, having spent the last two days imagining Ben was still alive after he abruptly went into cardiac arrest and died while Cox was away from the hospital.

Recalling the big twist in "The Sixth Sense" (but without the supernatural aspect), this final gut punch is a testament to the quality of this particular "Scrubs" episode. Its hints about Ben's fate are subtle and easy to miss. The series had already firmly established Dr. Cox's fierce commitment to his job by the time it aired, enough so that it wasn't remotely hard to buy some random patient dying while Cox was away would send him into a tailspin. That Ben's death would be painful enough to make him suffer a literal nervous breakdown — one where he imagines subtle ways for Ben to avoid interacting with anyone other than him after his death — didn't require much suspension of disbelief, either. Helping matters, the episode maintains a light and silly tone up until the last scene, even amidst Cox's visible struggle.

As someone who grew up on Brendan Fraser's 1990s comedies like "George of the Jungle" and "Blast from the Past," it was all the harder for me to watch one of his lovable himbo characters die on "Scrubs." The show would feature plenty of other moving episodes over the course of its subsequent seasons, but I'm inclined to agree with Zach Braff: none of them pack quite the punch "My Screw Up" does.