Here’s the thing about the original “Getting On,” the BBC Four series on which HBO’s new comedy of the same name is based: It’s one of the most highly unlikely excellent shows I’ve seen. It’s set in the resource-stressed extended care wing of a hospital, from which it doesn’t stray. It is aggressively drab and focused on the rules and bureaucracy that define the day-to-day lives of the workers as they attempt to care for their elderly patients. It’s written and created by its stars, Jo Brand, Joanna Scanlan and Vicki Pepperdine, a very talented trio who play women who look very plausibly and gratifyingly like two real frazzled nurses and one oblivious, socially inept doctor — in other words, like almost no one on U.S. television.
The British “Getting On” also has a sense of humor dry as the Sahara and the ability to have devastating jokes or moments of emotional connection emerge out of seemingly shapeless incidents on the ward floor. The first two seasons were directed by Peter Capaldi, who also played a recurring role and who gave the series the loose documentary feel of his fellow BBC comedy “The Thick of It,” albeit without the Malcolm Tucker histrionics — the personal dramas on “Getting On” were of the sort cloaked in administrative-speak or shared in fierce whispers in the hallways.
So the American version of “Getting On,” which premieres this Sunday, November 24th at 10pm, is attempting to capture the elusive magic of a series that, while terrifically sharp, funny and sometimes tender, also seemed to defy all the usual commercial impulses. It’s a tall order, even for an HBO production, and the new series doesn’t live up to it, though it has moments that work and that suggest it could grow into its own show with a different tone.
The remake comes via “Big Love” creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, and stars Laurie Metcalf (“Roseanne”), Alex Borstein (voice of Lois Griffin on “Family Guy) and Niecy Nash (“Reno 911!”) as Dr. Jenna James, head nurse Dawn Forchette and returning nurse Didi Ortley. The trio work in the Billy Barnes Extended Care Unit of Mt. Palms Hospital in Long Beach, CA, Dr. James reluctantly as a consulting physician (“I’m actually a real doctor over at the hospital,” she tells someone bluntly) until a meltdown leads her to be permanently condemned to overseeing the ward.
The series begins by following very closely in the footsteps of the original, from the handheld camerawork to many of the bits, among them the opening one, in which an inattentive Dawn holds the hand of an ailing patient while giggling over something on her phone, eventually realizing that the woman has died. It’s a joke that’s all but submerged, the kind of thing you see the dark humor of only as the scene has already moved on, and the first episode (directed by Miguel Arteta of “Chuck & Buck”) stages these straight-faced sequences somewhat awkwardly. The show is better off when it lets itself be bigger, which most of the time happens when it gets to new material, including a climactic moment from Dr. James toward the end of the first episode or a storyline about a patient who remains devotedly sexually active.
Despite being a place where many women (the ward’s for female patients only) pass on, it’s also a workplace, and “Getting On” finds its sweet spot in the place where those two realities intersect, where the grind and frustration of punching a clock at an institution meet mortality, and where the disposal of an errant fecal deposit on a chair sparks a interdepartmental debate.
But in the first three episodes shown to critics (and there are only six in total from this first season), “Getting On” can’t quite find a groove, and more noticeably doesn’t delve into the all too relevant issues of the U.S. health care system that it would seem obligated to explore. The U.K. original was very grounded in the National Health Service, but aside from mentions in the background about Medicare and Medicaid paperwork, the U.S. version doesn’t engage in anything so specific, which robs it of some bite.
Instead, “Getting On” serves as a salute to caregivers, in particular Didi, who’s often the calm center of the storm as Dawn flips between friendly and brusque and Dr. James literally runs away from her responsibilities on the floor while pursuing more prestigious research goals. It’s not a bad series, but it’s an incredibly tough sell, and seems unlikely to find enough of an audience to get picked up for anything more than its current, short season. Its source material, despite critical acclaim, was canceled after three seasons, and never aired in the U.S. — the only way to legally see it here is to pick up a region 2 DVD.