“Getting On” is one of those shows that a person
can’t really binge-watch, or at least shouldn’t binge watch, if they don’t want
to spend the night in a fetal position. It’s relentlessly bleak and depressing,
with every shot bathed in desaturating hospital fluorescents, showing where all
of us are likely headed at one point or another in our old age, populated by
workers who only seem to smile when they leave work.
But boy, is the show funny. In fact, the HBO comedy, whose
second season concludes on December 14 at 10:30 PM Eastern, might be the
rawest, funniest, most true-to-life show on TV, with some of the best comedic
performances on the small screen right now. Let us count the reasons why it’s
so watchable, despite how bleak it is:
1. It takes an
unsparing look at old age.
Based on a British comedy, “Getting On” takes
place in the geriatric extended care ward of a hospital that’s not exactly
flush with money. The ward is filled with seniors – mostly women – who are
either chronically ill, suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s, or are
essentially waiting to die. Those that are “passing through,” like
people rehabbing from surgery, have a look on their faces that indicate that
they’d rather be at the bottom of a ditch than in this ward.
It doesn’t show old age as an unending series of adventures
like you may see in an Eliquis commercial. It shows old age, especially the
later years, as people get into their 80s and beyond, for the nightmare it is
for most people and their loved ones: hospital beds, incontinence, wandering
off, and in the case of bipolar racist patient Varla Pounder (June Squibb) in
last week’s episode “The Revolving Door Admit,” a penchant for taking
off their clothes.
2. People die on the
show… a lot.
The ward’s staff, especially nurses Dawn Forchette (Alex
Borstein) and Didi Ortley (Nicey Nash, who seems to be everywhere these days),
try their best to make the patients feel comfortable, but they know that it’s
all just stalling the inevitable. It’s gotten them jaded — like they did last
week when they discussed Didi’s sweating problem, with a just-deceased hospice
patient lying in a bed just inches away.
Death is just a fact of life in the extended care ward,
especially now that Dr. Jenna James (Laurie Metcalf) has given almost all the
beds over to a hospice organization in order to get money for her obsessive
research on geriatric bikini regions. These passings are rarely, if ever,
considered a “tragedy,” and most of the time, it’s a relief to family
members who are distressed at seeing their loved ones withering away.
And the show is unsympathetic to those who hasten their own
demise; one episode ended when an alcoholic patient (Betty Buckley) who refused
to stop drinking even though she was told it would kill her, gulps down hand
sanitizer and collapses in the bathroom. In the last shot, all we see is a
security camera view of her legs splayed on the tile floor. That’s some dark
shit right there, but right in line with the attitude the show has about death
3. The angels of
mercy are no angels in their personal lives.
Dr. James is so focused on her research, she rarely smiles
and has little regard to how she treats anyone who can’t help her career; for
instance, she consistently had Dawn collect samples from patients for her
studies, even though it wasn’t part of Dawn’s job. Meanwhile, Dawn is so
dissatisfied with her life she tries to take a tryst with her company-man boss,
nurse administrator Patsy De La Serda (Mel Rodriguez) and make it into a
relationship. Even the put-upon Didi tries her best not to flirt with a
handsome orthopedic surgeon, despite the fact she’s married.
What’s also funny is that, unlike the way most medical
professionals are depicted on TV, their mistakes are often less epic and more
slapstick. Dawn accidentally pulls out a patient’s feeding tube after forcing
it down the patient’s nose; patients are moved around in a less than ginger
manner; equipment doesn’t work; Antoine the orderly (Brandon Fobbs)
accidentally wheels long-term patient Birdy (Ann Guilbert) to the morgue when
she pretends to be dead. They’re the types of stupid mistakes people make in
their jobs every day, especially when they’re overwhelmed. The fact that these
people shake them off and keep going is something we all can relate to.
4. It doesn’t call
attention to the fact that it has strong female characters.
“Getting On” has one of the best casts on TV; it
just happens to consist of mostly women. Borstein, who most people remember
from “MADtv” or her various voices in Seth MacFarlane’s shows, shows
a nerdy vulnerability that makes you laugh with her and keeps you sympathetic for
her sad singleton plight. Only Dawn would get pregnant and then find out that
she actually doesn’t have a baby inside of her because of a blighted ovum —
yes, they went there, folks — and be able to use that to lift her self-esteem
instead of wreck it.
And Nash has perfected a tired, world-weary look and manner
that has made us forget that she’s usually known for in-your-face roles, like her
character in “The Soul Man.” And what else can we say about Metcalf
that people haven’t been saying for the last twenty-five years (since her
breakout work in “Roseanne”)? She plays Jenna as so in her own head
that hearing her rattle on about vaginal shrinkage makes the viewer physically
uncomfortable — then she can turn on a dime to smile, twirl her new curls, and
sashay in a tight dress, all in the hopes of getting more money to buy lab
Women are also getting meaty guest roles; besides Squibb and
Buckley, Jean Smart played the daughter-in-law of a dementia patient who hates
the fact that she has to take care of someone who tormented her, Molly Shannon appeared
as a woman who is slowly having a breakdown as taking care of her sick mother
overwhelms her, Mary Kay Place shows up as a doctor who shares Jenna’s love of
research, Jayma Mays is the head of the hospice company who makes a deal with
Jenna and Alia Shawkat plays a sympathetic hospice worker. Pretty much every
scene with these women passes the much-publicized “Bechdel test”;
they’re talking about work and life, not men. “Getting On” never
points to this, of course; it’s just how life goes, especially when everyone in
a hospital ward is in the home stretch.
While the subject matter of “Getting On” is
depressing as hell, what’s more depressing is that — despite HBO renewing it
for a second season and promoting more than they did before its first —
ratings are still minuscule, drawing somewhere in the range of 300,000 viewers
the day it airs. Whether it’ll get a third season is anyone’s guess. But if HBO
is smart, they’ll let this show just keep doing what it’s doing, well under the
radar. Because a show about old age and death will never be destined to be a
hit, but those who don’t mind the depression will be rewarded with lots of