Getting On

I’ve never laughed so hard about the frail and failing elderly.

Alex Borstein and Laurie Metcalf in HBO's "Getting On."

Alex Borstein and Laurie Metcalf in HBO’s     

Photo by Dale Robinette/HBO

HBO’s gutsy new series Getting On, which starts this Sunday night and is based on a British show of the same name, is set on a hospital’s geriatric extended-care floor. This middling facility is a stopover for elderly patients recovering from surgery and strokes, and a more permanent home for those with Alzheimer’s and dementia. On the 36-bed ward, old people poop on chairs, screech in foreign languages, curse out the staff, copulate in public spaces, vomit, fall, and die. But Getting On is not a drama, it’s a deadpan, absurdist comedy. I’ve never laughed so hard about the frail and failing. The Golden Age of TV may be over, but Getting On suggests no one has told the people writing parts for women yet.

Getting On stars Alex Borstein as Dawn Forchette, an insecure, easily pushed-around nurse, and the tremendous Niecy Nash as Denise “Didi” Ortley, her much more grounded new colleague. We first meet Didi as she discovers that a patient has just defecated on a chair. The straightforward Didi tells Dawn “There’s a turd on a chair in the lounge” and volunteers to clean it up. Dawn, an inducted member of the hospital bureaucracy, replies, “It’s feces, not a turd,” and then insists they leave it there until proper paperwork is filled out. Thus kicks off an episode-long riff about the fate of this particular piece of excrement, which is soon drafted into the fecal study of caustic Dr. Jenna James (Laurie Metcalf), and spends much of the day in that chair, awaiting placement and stinking up the floor, a poop joke with a Kafkaesque flair.

The comedy of bureaucracy is Getting On’s particular forte. The show covers familiar setups in red tape. The standard gag about foreign languages being incomprehensible and therefore “hilarious” gets uproarious treatment when Didi and Dawn play a game of telephone with a hospital translator and a Cambodian patient that has the two nurses speaking actual nonsense. A sex joke drowns in paperwork when two patients begin doing it, sending the staff into a frenzy about how to deal with two consenting senior citizens. (Specifically, a skeletal Harry Dean Stanton getting a blowjob from a woman in her 80s.) Everyone agrees they must “respect the patients’ sexual bill of rights,” but Dr. James insists on copious tests and forms. Dawn ends up having the woman’s full-grown sons sign a consent form permitting their octogenarian mother to get laid. They receive a kiss on the cheek for their troubles.

In Getting On, employees get caught up in the insane structures and rhythms of their workplace, much as they did on the original Office, which is a palpable influence. (Thankfully, Getting On scraps the mockumentary format.) But the overall effect is almost the opposite: Unlike The Office, Getting On is not about how regular people waste their lives and kill their time at work; it’s about how work, riddled with inanities as it is, can valorize regular people.

Dawn has a pathetic streak, but even as she vibrates with a sort of high-intensity loneliness—her backstory involves a speedy marriage to a man who swindled and left her— she is more admirable than the sad sacks who worked at Wernham Hogg. Unlike them, she is doing good work. Dawn may be flakey and suggestible, but she is taking care of people who need caring for. She may be playing a game on her phone while a woman whose hand she is holding dies, but at least she’s holding her hand. No one else is there to do it.

It’s even easier to like Didi, who is the kind of woman I want taking care of me if I ever find myself stuck in a middling long-term-care facility. Surrounded by doctors, nurses, and patients with a tendency to behave like flibbertigibbets, Didi emanates common sense and compassion, aware enough to roll her eyes but empathic enough to try her best. When a racist and homophobic charge named Varla continually curses Didi out, Didi takes offense but keeps doing her job. Seconds after calling Didi some horrifyingly nasty names, Varla vomits, and Didi’s immediate reaction is concern.

Getting On can sometimes feel overly mannered. The characters engage in detailed, dead serious, increasingly ridiculous conversations that are familiar from the work of Christopher Guest, the master of sustained deadpan set pieces. Without doing anything overtly unrealistic, these sequences always feel a little claustrophobic and controlled: In real life, at least one person involved in a five-minute discussion about a piece of dookie would laugh. Metcalf’s Dr. James, a cold, self-involved woman with mediocre bedside manner, is the most mannered of all. She feels more like a funny idea for a character than a real person, the woman convinced she can get recognition and respect by focusing on literal shit.

But at least unlike in Ricky Gervais’ cloying Derek, also about the employees of an old-age home, in Getting On neither the elderly nor their caretakers are stuck being saintly. Dr. James is egotistical and unreliable, Dawn is flighty and unreliable, and even Didi has her rough edges. After Varla manages to upset supervising nurse Patsy De La Serda (Mel Rodriguez) by calling him a “fat fairy,” Didi asks Patsy if he’s OK. When it’s clear he’s not, Didi tells him she thought he handled Varla pretty well, “for a fat fairy.” She means it as a we’re-all-in-this-together joke, but Patsy files a complaint against her, giving Getting On a chance to go all absurdist-bureaucratic on hate speech. During the resulting mediation, the HR rep tries to find out if Patsy is gay—“If Nurse De La Serda is gay, we’re talking about homophobic abuse. If he’s not we’re talking about inappropriate language in the workplace”—which is the exact thing he doesn’t want to discuss.

Getting On is the sort of show that makes me thankful premium cable exists. No network would even fund a pilot for a deadpan comedy about middle-aged women who care for the elderly and dying, much less air it. It’s almost as impossible to believe, without seeing it, that such a show could be both very funny and occasionally uplifting without ever resorting to cheap sentimentality. But it is. Go watch, and laugh at some senior citizens and the decent people who care for them, and see for yourself.