‘Scrubs’ returns, but who are these newbies?

There's something vaguely puzzling about the new season of "Scrubs" (8 p.m. Central Tuesday, ABC; two and a half stars).

You see, this new-ish iteration of the show is sort of a sequel to the long-running medical comedy and sort of a continuation of it too. Forgive me, I can't resist the medical analogies: Something about the new-but-partly-familiar show feels a bit off, as if a facelift didn't quite work out as planned.

It's not as if there aren't jokes, and even some good ones, in the new season, which is set at a medical school and features some of the old cast as instructors. It's just that the show's somewhat unwieldy roster of new and returning characters has made it harder for "Scrubs'" patented mixture of whimsical humor, pointed zingers and occasional sweetness to jell.

Will "Scrubs" be more or less consistent when Zach Braff (who'll be in six episodes) and Sarah Chalke (four episodes) take off for good? Who knows. This is nothing if not an experimental treatment.

Some key characters from "Scrubs" are either missing in action (that's the case with Judy Reyes' Carla) or make very brief appearances (Neil Flynn's Janitor makes a cameo but Flynn's on ABC's "The Middle" now). Bob Kelso, however, is still around, which means we'll get to enjoy Ken Jenkins' wicked way with a punchline for at least another half season (at this point, ABC has ordered 13 episodes of "Scrubs: The New School").

Part of me wants the "Scrubs" graft to take, but another part of me wonders if ABC should have simply pulled the plug. The main problem Season 9 of "Scrub" is that Lucy Bennett (Kerry Bishe), the medical student around which the new season revolves, isn't all that funny or winning, and she needs to be one of those things for "Scrubs" to truly work.

The fault really isn't Bishe's, the problem is more that her bland, tentative character just isn't that entertaining, at least in the first two episodes. Lucy certainly doesn't have the doofy, dorky charm that made Braff's J.D. and his voiceovers engaging for so long. Plus J.D. had Turk (Donald Faison) to bounce off, and the J.D.-Turk relationship is still one of the most consistently funny things about "Scrubs" (which begs the question, what happens when Braff exits and the Guy Love between Turk and J.D. no longer anchors the show? Will it be like Bell Biv DeVoe with just Biv?)

In any case, poor Lucy often seems like a deer caught in the headlights, which makes is simply uncomfortable when Dr. Perry Cox (John C. McGinley) subjects the newbie to one of his patented rants. It's not really that funny to contemplate which might happen first: Cox bursting a blood vessel or Lucy bursting into tears.

The rest of the new or new-ish faces are occasionally funny one-note characters. Eliza Coupe reprises her portrayal of Season 8's brusque Denise, whose rudeness is sometimes mildly amusing and sometimes simply predictable. Michael Mosley is Drew, a med student who (unfortunately for him) attracts the attention of Cox. And Dave Franco is the entitled rich boy Cole, who thinks his family's contributions to Winston University make him untouchable. Cole's languid douchiness is somewhat entertaining, but all of these characters need more texture, and a little camaraderie among them would be nice too.

Still, the old crew made me laugh on more than one occasion as I watched the first two episodes of Season 9 (the Todd made me giggle every time he turned up).

But I can't promise that the long-term prognosis is good. A "Scrubs" starring Cox, Turk, scared Lucy and obnoxious Denise? Hmm. The hybrid "Scrubs" will have to be very funny to make that strange ensemble work.

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