Whenever a U.K. comedy crosses the pond for an American makeover, the first concern generally tends to be about capturing the spirit and tone of the original. And while I haven’t seen the British version of “Getting On,” whatever happened in translation didn’t seem to dilute a potent blend of sweet and sour laughs in HBO‘s take on the series. Retaining the tradition of truly cringeworthy moments of comedic embarrassment popularized by the efforts of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant and combining it with heart and (fleeting) moments of genuine emotion, “Getting On” makes the most of its six episode first season.
Set in the Billy Barnes Extended Care Unit of Mt. Palms Hospital in Long Beach, California, the show follows the increasingly knotty and overlapping travails of an ensemble of workers in the geriatric ward. Alex Borstein (“MadTV,” Lois Griffin on “Family Guy“) is the central focus as Nurse Dawn Forchette, a perfectionist on the job who makes otherwise makes terrible decisions in every other arena of her life particularly when it comes to men. Case in point is Patsy De La Serda (Mel Rodriguez), the Supervising Nurse of the department who she gets involved with, despite his uncertainty about his sexuality. Meanwhile, Dr. Jenna James (Laurie Metcalf) as the unit’s lead physician tries to retain her professional composure even if she’s stuck in a job she didn’t want, all while the only sane person on the floor, the newly arrived Nurse Didi Ortley (Niecy Nash), watches the madness play out around her, as she cares for the patients with the compassion everyone else often lacks.
And while our preview of the series rightfully noted the sharp writing of the show, which found jokes in almost every conceivable corner, it’s the clever structure that really stands out after viewing the entire season. Layered almost like an onion, “Getting On” seems to get even better with each successive episode, with little pieces of plot and shades of character continually building one on top of another and paying off with big dividends. This does mean some of the best moments are a bit backloaded in the short series, with the pilot the weakest of the bunch, but in an era of binge viewing, if you sit down with “Getting On” for three hours one night, you’ll have the rare experience of witnessing a program build to its best material, without any wavering in the middle stretch.
This approach allows even the smallest of events to snowball into smartly crafted comedic sequences. For example: An offhand, harmless comment by Didi eventually turns into a surreal exercise in Human Resources, with the nurse bending over backward to make amends for a perceived homophobic insult. Jenna’s successful research oddly enough turns around on her and finds the doctor fighting for the very job she has, but doesn’t really want. Essentially, instead of contrived setpieces and broader gags, “Getting On” favors organically built comedy that it presents in an environment that also honors the realities of the actual job, and forgoes the sort of heightened shenanigans of something like “Scrubs.”
Well integrated guest spots by folks like Molly Shannon and Daniel Stern (as Jenna’s hilariously unlikely husband) are also big assists to an across-the-board strong lead ensemble who create rich characters in a show that doesn’t leave the single setting once during the first season. Indeed, if there are any quibbles to be had, it’s that the contained approach leaves some comedic opportunities not as fully realized as they could be (the dating life of Dawn and Patsy in particular). And while there can only be so much room in thirty minutes for such a wide array of players, one wishes there were more of Antoine (Brandon Fobbs), an orderly who occasionally drops by, and sets Dawn’s heart racing.
But these are minor concerns and the sort of thing that could easily be addressed in a second season… though it looks like that won’t be in the cards for “Getting On” at this point. It’s disappointing that there is virtually no buzz around the show, and the meager ratings certainly can’t be helped by programming “Getting On” during the time of year when people have a whole lot of other distractions to keep them from tuning in. However, whether it continues or not shouldn’t prevent you from catching up with one of the most underappreciated new TV shows of 2013, that packs big laughs in a compact size. [B+]