Our collective fear of death has driven story since its invention. But where once we quaked at the thought of a life cut short — by violence, illness, childbirth — we now just as often obsess about lives, and deaths, stretched overlong.
A variety of shows currently square off against these anxieties, from the fantastic (AMC’s “The Walking Dead”) to the literal (Showtime’s “Time of Death”). And no matter their overall tone, all acknowledge the grim jest that is mortality.
HBO’s hour-long comedy “Getting On,” premiering Sunday, sets the standard for this emerging “hospice humor.” It’s a dark and astonishing gem of a show, with a bravely skillful cast juggling the petty obsessions of the workplace with Much Bigger Issues. Not just life and death, age and loneliness, but also stickier questions about compassion and care, about what we owe one another and what we are owed ourselves.
You will laugh and you will wince, and you will see yourself and those you love, whether you care to admit it or not.
Adapted by “Big Love’s” Will Scheffer and Mark V. Olsen from a British show of the same name, “Getting On” exists in the microcosm of Billy Barnes Extended Care Unit of Mt. Palms Hospital in Long Beach. It’s a place where old folks go to prepare for, or recover from, illness or surgery.
Mt. Palms is fictional, but Billy Barnes is real enough. He was a composer and lyricist known best for his work on “Laugh-In” and the song “Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair?” — a contrast of the humorous, the satiric and the mournful that makes him a fitting patron saint for the show, which is also all of those things.
Nurse Dawn (Alex Borstein) is also all of those things, the self-involved and self-defeating center of the six-episode series. With her flip ‘do and penchant for headbands, Dawn seems overly familiar with the “That Girl!” ethos, which in 2013 has calcified to a protective coating of faux professionalism, i.e. order-following. We meet Dawn as she is “training” new nurse Denise/DiDi (Niecy Nash), a process that includes explaining to her the byzantine procedure that must be followed after a patient has an accident on a chair.
This event requires an exchange about the use of the word “feces” that plays like a 21st century “Who’s on First,” and quickly sets the tone for the show. Eschewing the syrup of Ricky Gervais’ similarly set “Derek,” “Getting On” acknowledges the realities of bodies that are aging and ill, and the creators and cast are not afraid to take a joke one beat too far, pushing it to the often uncomfortable realm of protest-absurdity.
But there they do not wallow. Sometimes feces is just feces, and sometimes it’s a metaphor. Into the midst of this opening salvo against bureaucracy sails Dr. Jenna James (Laurie Metcalf), a doctor dismissive of the Extended Care Unit except as far as it can further her career.
She is currently collecting feces samples in the hopes of making her name by upgrading the standard “stool chart.” All of which is played with anxious, angry and beleaguered sincerity by all parts.
While the patients moan, wander or watch in alarm, the drama, and satire, of “Getting On” focuses on the people paid to care for them. When Dr. James, who Metcalf stretches to trip-wire tension, has a public meltdown, she is “banished” to full-time assignment at Billy Barnes. A new head nurse is appointed, a man with issues of his own and a plan to bring Disney-like service and structure to the unit’s “customers.”
Twisting and turning through drama and comedy, pathos and satire, “Getting On” is a bit like “The Office” crossed with Paddy Chayefsky’s “The Hospital,” but with more tenderness. Though this is, at least in early episodes, supplied almost exclusively by DiDi.
As the “normal” character amid the oddities, Nash has the most difficult job. It’s up to her to keep things real. With admirable restraint and comedic dexterity, she clears enough space for the dysfunction to unravel and leaves room for the possibility of repair.
Borstein (best known as the voice of Lois Griffin on “The Family Guy”) and Metcalf meanwhile fearlessly display their characters’ damage in a way all but forbidden to female performers on broadcast networks. There is nothing “adorkable” about Dawn; she’s a mess, which she sort of knows but doesn’t want to own because that would mean she’d have to do something about it. And who hasn’t been there, sister?
Metcalf’s Jenna is similarly afflicted. Denied the grandeur and fashion sense of, say, “The Good Wife’s” Diane Lockhart, she’s a woman who suspects, possibly rightly, that the mostly male authority figures have conspired against her. And she reacts by making everything much, much worse.
Their collective saving grace is their ability to truly help those in their care, people too often defined by symptoms and assumed limitations. That care is often given accidentally, incidentally or almost in passing.
But it is given, it does matter and it is disturbingly hilarious to watch.