The patience, sanity, selflessness and complete lack of vanity required to be a nurse is something that can’t be stressed enough. And while medical dramas have shown medical staff to be (personally and emotionally complicated) life saving heroes, the medical sitcom is surprisingly still fairly fresh creative territory (the last one of note was “Scrubs,” the Zach Braff starring show that usually placed wackiness and hijinks in the foreground). Perhaps it’s because getting the recipe right of blending the life and death reality of the job with comedic elements is a balance that’s difficult to achieve, but congratulations to the folks behind “Getting On” because in the first half of the six-episode season sent to press, they’ve accomplished the feat.
A remake of the BBC comedy of the same name (with a retweaking of the story elements, characters and plot points from that show), “Getting On” takes place in the Billy Barnes Extended Care Unit of Mt. Palms Hospital in Long Beach, California. The staff here strive to care for their geriatric patients in varying degrees of ill health from simply recovering from surgery to suffering from dementia, but of course, they get caught up in bureaucratic red tape, personal conflicts and professional ambitions. And admittedly, the show’s first episode, “Born On The Fourth Of July” is the weakest, introducing a bunch of characters that at first glance seem one-dimensional and cliché.
Leading the ensemble is Alex Borstein (“MadTV,” Lois Griffin on “Family Guy“) as Nurse Dawn Forchette, an eager to please perfectionist who has been on the job for over a decade, in what is clearly the most important thing in her life, particularly as she’s still reeling from the sudden breakup of her marriage. At her side is Nurse Didi Ortley (Niecy Nash), who is just starting at Billy Barnes, calmly trying to find a way to get around the madness and official procedures of the hospital to get work done with quiet compassion. Part of the chaos is stirred up by Dr. Jenna James (Laurie Metcalf), reluctantly assigned to the Extended Care Unit, as she tries to cling to her hospital job while also desperately eager to make a name for herself and further her career by expanding the Bristol stool chart (yes, the show has a running shit joke/subplot but it also might be the most clever one you’ll get all year). Also in the mix is Patsy De La Serda (Mel Rodriguez), the sensitive, data driven Supervising Nurse of the department of uncertain sexual orientation.
But thankfully, the writing of Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer quickly adds shape and dimension to everyone, so what starts as seemingly stock neurotic characters, becomes much more honed, with the kind of speed rarely seen in the faux-doc and/or sitcom format. And so, while some of the humor comes from these quirky characters operating in a job that generally requires level-headed professionalism, the writers of “Getting On” also find ample room for comedy in the absurdity of the workplace itself testing the limits of decent, flawed staff trying to do good. The result is a show that finds laughs in a variety of places, some of which are often surprising. And big hand has to go to the cast for making it all look so easy.
At least as far as the first half of the season goes, Laurie Metcalf is a standout. While Dr. James is initially seemingly positioned as a villain-type character, one driven by her goals and less concerned with the needs of the department she’s tasked with, she emerges as someone highly aware of how the career game is played. She’s sympathetic to the nurses….but only so far as it suits her own ends, creating a pretty rich dichotomy for the actress to work with, and Metcalf makes the most of it, playing frenzied and buttoned-down at the same time rather remarkably. It’s a reminder of just how good she can be. Alex Borstein too finds different notes for Dawn, whose longing for companionship manifests itself in humorous and touching ways. While the MVP thus far is Niecy Nash, who is generously given some of the most touching, moving moments of “Getting On,” which takes small measures to truly respect the patients and the inevitability of death, without making it feel forced or trite. It’s simply a reality of the job, one of many things that happen in a given day, that can range from the absurd to the mundane to both.
Featuring sharp guest spots (June Squibb as a far more racist, foul mouthed version of her character from “Nebraska“; Harry Dean Stanton as the completely horny boyfriend of a patient) and a strong hand on tone (leaning more towards the British sensibility of “naturally” occurring humor rather than constructed pieces and set-up/punchline jokes), “Getting On” is a comedy series that we more than recommend you take a dose of once per week. [B]
“Getting On” premieres on Sunday, November 24th at 10:00 PM. Full review of the season next month.