Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Waiting Room: HBO's Getting On

If ever a TV show appeared to have made for the express purpose of being buried, it’s HBO's Getting On. An adaptation of an acclaimed British series, Getting On is set in the extended-care ward of a large, Southern California hospital. It’s a workplace comedy, but set in a workplace where the medical personnel are just doing whatever they can to make things easiest on people who have exhausted modern medicine’s ability to do anything to improve their lives. Whether they’re near death or lost in dementia, they’re just waiting out the clock, and so are their caregivers. The show is a black comedy, but a dry, poker-faced black comedy, about doing a job that numbs you to the everyday tragedy of human beings coming to the end of their road.

The series debuted the weekend before Thanksgiving, and it’s wrapping up its six-episode run two days before New Year’s Eve; it wouldn't exactly fit right in with the holiday season even if it hadn't appeared around the same time as Showtime’s documentary series, Time of Death. But Getting On is actually a smart, highly enjoyable series that tames the queasy emotions surrounding death and dying, more productively than the characters tame the messiness of death through a system of bureaucracy and office politics. It’s also one of the best-acted current comedies on TV. Alex Borstein, an actress best known for her voice work—she plays the Mom on Family Guy—is Dawn, the head nurse of the ward, whose great qualification is her mastery of the rules of every conceivable situation. Prematurely burned out and focused on keeping herself below the radar, she’s like a benign Nurse Ratched. Niecy Nash, of the improvisational police comedy Reno 911!, is the fresher nurse, DiDi, who hasn’t yet had her capacity for spontaneous thought beaten out of her. (The two of them are introduced having a conversation about a stool that someone has left on one of the lobby chairs. Dawn is concerned that proper protocol be followed; DiDi tries to explain that, while they’re discussing what proper protocol is, she could simply pick the offending feces up with a paper towel and Lysol the chair.)

The invaluable Laurie Metcalf is the overworked, tightly drawn Dr. James, who has a violent freakout while visiting the ward and is demoted by being posted there permanently. Mel Rodriguez is the new kid in town, Patsy De La Serda, an insecure, easily affronted would-be authority figure of ambiguous sexuality. There are also such guest performer as Molly Shannon as a woman whose mother’s clinging to life is starting to become an inconvenience, and an unrecognizable Daniel Stern as Dr. James’ husband. In one episode, one of the mostly-gone woman patients receives a “gentleman caller,” and everyone coos and twinkles about how adorable it is that two old folks are having a “date.” This is a pretty hilarious comment on the sentimentalizing of the aged, because the gentleman caller is played by Harry Dean Stanton, and the date goes just about the way any veteran observer of Harry Dean Stanton would expect.

Ricky Gervais in Derek

In its own bracing lack of sentimentality, Getting On is a welcome corrective to Ricky Gervais’s recent Derek, in which Gervais, who must have really let the tsk-tsking about his snarky appearances at the Golden Globe show get to him, plays a man who seems to be mentally deficient, oozing goodness all over the residents at the retirement home where he works. (Gervais has said that the character isn’t meant to be mentally deficient at all, and by the end of the series’ first season, it’s clear that he actually suffers from Forrest Gump disease; he’s the creation of someone who wants to create an image of pure goodness, and who mistakenly believes that goodness and brains must be mutually exclusive.) The shots of the old people in Derek are purest exploitation; they’re never in any danger of turning into characters, they’re just there to provide a way for the hero to demonstrate his saintliness. Getting On is funny about the prospect of death, and the inadequacy of any way we have of dealing with it, without being sticky or depressing, which may feel a  lot closer to real saint’s work.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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