In recent years, showrunners have become more and more visible to television viewers. Where we once based our interest (or lack thereof) in a show on the actors, premise, or network, we now often pay more attention to the creator behind it — for better or for worse. We may tune in to a comedy because the showrunner also helmed our favorite sitcom or refuse to watch a drama because the showrunner previously ended a series on a bland or unsatisfying note. In this series, Flavorwire examines a specific showrunner’s body of work: the hits, misses, overlooked projects, and ones that never had a chance. For the inaugural edition, we take a look at Scrubs, Cougar Town, and Clone High creator Bill Lawrence.
Spin City (1996-2002, ABC)
In 1996, Bill Lawrence co-created Spin City with Gary David Goldberg (Family Ties), a sitcom centered on a fictional mayor in New York City, Mayor Winston (Barry Bostwick), and his Deputy Mayor, Mike Flaherty (Michael J. Fox). The show was notable for its funny look at local government (beating Parks and Recreation to the punch) and the strong, highly developed characters that would later become a Lawrence staple. A standout was Carter Heywood (Michael Boatman), a gay black man — the kind of character that had rarely played such a prominent role on television before — who was written with care and confidence.
Spin City aired six seasons on ABC (and lives on in syndication), but its first four seasons are definitely the best. Michael J. Fox is pure gold as Mike Flaherty, and his dynamic with Bostwick was the anchor of the show. Unfortunately, Fox’s Parkinson’s resulted in Fox leaving prematurely (he was replaced by Charlie Sheen in Season 5). The show never felt the same, not just because of his departure, but because Bill Lawrence left as well, and the writers were never able to replicate the quality of his work.
If you’re just getting into Bill Lawrence, Spin City isn’t the best introduction — that would be Scrubs — but it’s a good second.
Scrubs (2001-2008, NBC; 2009-2010, ABC)
Without a doubt, Bill Lawrence is best known for Scrubs, which is his longest-running and most popular program (and the only one he is credited on as sole creator). Scrubs began in 2001 on NBC and followed a group of medical interns as they worked their way up to become doctors. If you’re completely unfamiliar with Lawrence, then Scrubs is the best and most accessible place to start. Scrubs featured a mix of slapstick comedy, quick one-liners, and fun, one-off special episodes (Season 4’s “My Life in Four Cameras” ventured into multi-camera style to depict J.D.’s sitcom fantasies, and Season 6’s “My Musical,” which borrowed Avenue Q‘s writing team to create a two-act musical episode, later received five Emmy nominations).
NBC decided not to renew Scrubs after Season 7, but ABC swooped in and saved it, airing the show for two more seasons. The ninth and final season — which Bill Lawrence wanted to rename Scrubs Med — focused on new medical students, and most of the original cast only made a few short appearances. It didn’t get the high praise of the earlier seasons (your best bet is just to watch up until Season 8’s “My Finale,” which is one of the most satisfying sitcom finales you’ll ever see), but by this time, Lawrence was already doing double duty with the first season of Cougar Town.
Clone High (2002-2003, Teletoon/MTV)
Scrubs may be Bill Lawrence’s most popular creation, but Clone High might be the most beloved when it comes to its passionate fans. Lawrence co-created the show along with Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (who later went on to write wonderful films like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and The Lego Movie).
Clone High has one of the strangest but most refreshing premises in animated TV history: the entire high school is made up of clones of historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Joan of Arc, Cleopatra, and Gandhi. The clones, who are hilariously different from their originals (Gandhi can be a jerk, Abe is indecisive), all deal with typical high school issues.
Clone High only ran for 13 Very Special Episodes (all were shown in Canada, although MTV canceled the show before airing the whole season), but its legacy still lives on. It’s my personal favorite entry in Bill Lawrence’s canon — I don’t even want to admit how much I paid for the Canadian DVDs a while back — and it’s also, for my money, the absolute funniest thing he’s ever done (not to mention one of the funniest one-season shows in existence). Every once in a while, vague rumors will surface about the show’s continuation elsewhere; apparently, Lord, Miller, and Lawrence regularly talk about the possibility of a Clone High movie.
Cougar Town (2009-2012, ABC; 2013-present, TBS)
The worst thing about Cougar Town is its title, but once you get past that (and a few early shaky episodes), it’s all uphill. Contrary to the title, Jules (Courteney Cox) doesn’t spend the series preying on younger guys. It may have started out that way, but the show quickly shifted gears to become a hangout sitcom — and one that actually works.
With Cougar Town, it’s best to start in the middle of Season 1 and go forward, because the show really hits its stride when it shifts its focus to this wine-addicted group of friends in a Florida cul-de-sac who blow off work to play silly games like Penny Can or collectively overthink Jules’ relationship with Grayson (Josh Hopkins). Christa Miller (Scrubs) and Busy Philips (Freaks and Geeks) are also standouts in Cougar Town, which recently switched networks from ABC to TBS.
Much like Scrubs‘ network switch, Cougar Town has also lost a bit of its bite — plus, Bill Lawrence and his co-creator/frequent collaborator, the equally impressive Kevin Biegel, stepped down as showrunners in Season 4. The show is still a fun time, but the best seasons to watch are 2 and 3. Plow through those, and you’ll fall in love with the characters enough to stick with them until the end (which will be after this upcoming season).
Ground Floor (2013-Present, TBS)
It’s a shame that more people didn’t watch the first season of Ground Floor, though at least enough people watched it for TBS to grant it a second season. The show reunites Bill Lawrence (who co-created the show with Greg Malins) with Scrubs‘ John C. McGinley. Ground Floor is a cute rom-com sitcom about the in-office romance between ground-floor employee Jenny (Briga Heelan) and top-floor banker Brody (Skyler Astin from Pitch Perfect). It can be clichéd and hokey, but that’s all worth it for the fun performances from leads who put everything into their roles (and sing, a lot — especially the adorable Astin).
In a way, Ground Floor reminds me of Cougar Town in that the show transcends a bad premise. The characters are the best part of it — as they always are with Lawrence, whether the setting is a hospital, cul-de-sac, or an animated high school — and Lawrence knows how to create people that you just want to hang out with. Ground Floor isn’t poised to be a big hit — I’d attribute this more to the TBS stigma than the actual quality of the show — but its quick, ten-episode first season is worth the watch.
During his early years, Bill Lawrence worked in the writers room of a few popular sitcoms: Boy Meets World (“I wrote one episode of Boy Meets World before I kind of got canned,” he said in a 2011 Vulture interview), The Nanny, and Friends (where he’s credited with the Season 1 Valentine’s Day episode “The One With the Candy Hearts”). According to Lawrence, he was fired from each one. But at least these bad experiences eventually led him to creating his own programs.
Lawrence also served as an executive producer for last season’s short-lived Surviving Jack, which got stronger over time but was canceled after one season, and is currently an EP on NBC’s Undateable (if there is one Lawrence-related show to skip, it’s unfortunately this one, though the references to his other shows are a nice touch).
Then there were the shows that didn’t make it. 2005’s Nobody’s Watching, shot for the WB and starring Saturday Night Live‘s Taran Killam, was about two “television experts” who get a chance to make a sitcom for the WB. It’s strange, meta, and a bit confusing — which helps to explain why it didn’t work with test audiences — and never made it to air, though it did make it to YouTube.
2012’s Like Father, the semi-autobiographical sitcom about a widowed father moving into his son’s campus apartment, never got past the pilot order at Fox, despite having a strong (and distinctly Bill Lawrence) script. But Lawrence always seems to have projects in the works, such as Fox’s Chasing Skips and NBC’s Stand-Up Guy.