Review and Recap: HBO’s New Comedy Series, “Getting On”
HBO’s new series Getting On, based on a British show of the same name, tackles subjects that more conventional comedies often whitewash or ignore: aging, death and dying. Set in a long-term care facility, it stars Alex Borstein as Dawn Forchette, Laurie Metcalf as Dr. Jenna James, and Niecy Nash as Denise “DiDi” Ortley.
Getting On takes a little while to pick up, beginning with a series of gags that, while amusing, drag on and feel disjointed, like Saturday Night Live sketches that don’t know when to end. Worse, they are neither laugh-out-loud funny nor particularly insightful. To be fair, these scenes only take up a small portion of the episode, but in a TV environment glutted with options, it’s rarely a good thing for a pilot to leave viewers questioning what it’s about. Fortunately, as the episode continues, the contours of a greater purpose become apparent and character dynamics hinted at previously come to the fore.
Dawn is a neurotic head ward nurse who makes up for her somewhat grating personality with what seems to be a genuine concern for her patients. Dr. Jenna James is a high-strung and irreverent researcher for an insurance company who places more value on her work than on her human test subjects. Nurse Denise “DiDi” Orley is the consummate everywoman, struggling to live up to the expectations of her superiors while periodically challenging some of the facility’s more questionable conventions.
The three leads are intriguing enough, their banter consistently witty and their personalities distinct. The acting is also strong across the board, with the three leads naturally inhabiting their roles as if they’ve played them for years. At this point, though, Dawn is the obvious focal point of the show; it is through her that the writers start to convey Getting On’s underlying themes. Hints emerge that she is not quite as compassionate as she claims, such as when she eats the birthday cake of a recently deceased woman while simultaneously comforting her bereaved sister. Can’t she at least offer the poor woman a slice?
There is something vaguely disturbing about the imagery, amplified when Denise follows suit and helps herself to some dead woman’s birthday cake. On one level, it is revealing in that it shows that characters have been around so much sickness and death that it has inured them to it, in a sense stripping them of their humanity. One gets a similar impression when they banter over dying people like co-workers at the watercooler. On another, perhaps more disturbing level, the cake incident, as well as several others, call into question the motives of individuals who devote their careers to an ostensibly noble pursuit. Are these obviously damaged people out to help others, or are they out to help themselves? Or is it a combination of the two? Ghoulishly battling over what to do with feces is funny, but like the birthday cake incident, unsettling in its thematic implications.
Therein lies the most promising element of Getting On. The artistic success of the show is incumbent less on plot (there have been many medical shows) and more on its ability to capitalize on the themes it has introduced.