HBO’s ‘Getting On’: A Cure for TV’s Plague of Hospital Shows

By  · Published on December 11th, 2013

HBO’s ‘Getting On’: A Cure for TV’s Plague of Hospital Shows

Nothing is less interesting to me than a TV series about doctors. Hospital shows take place in astoundingly self-centered, even self-helpy, universes where strangers suffer and die so doctors can learn life lessons. (Everything happens for a reason!) Week after week, procedural medical shows like House, Grey’s Anatomy, Scrubs, and ER wheel(ed) in opportunities for thin, beautiful, hyper-articulate doctors to demonstrate their intelligence and/or compassion.

TV’s idealization of doctors personally strikes me as rather strange, as no one I know actually likes them. (Calm down, doctor readers. I’m sure your mothers love you very much.) Big Love showrunners Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer apparently agree, because they adapted the doctor-skewering BBC series Getting On for American viewers. (They kept the name.)

The HBO series is a warts-and-all look at hospital life, taking place in a geriatric wing overseen by a physician-researcher who studies shit. She’s trying to prove that, contrary to conventional medical knowledge, there aren’t seven, but sixteen types of feces. “It’s the 21st fucking century!” she explains.

Needless to say, Getting On is hilarious and bleak and smart and an antidote to all the schmaltzy doctor programs of the past two decades. (It’s not alone, of course; Adult Swim’s Childrens Hospital does this, too.) That’s partly because it doesn’t rely too heavily on the interactions between the medical staff and the patients for plot developments. An exception occurs in the second episode “If You’re Going to San Francisco,” in which June Squibb outdoes her award-collecting performance in Nebraska as an ailing spitfire who’d be adorable if she weren’t such an obviously terrible person.

Getting On’s strength is in eschewing the perspective of the doctors for that of the nurses. The bottoms-up point of view is integral to the show’s cringe comedy, much of which is based on the class and power conflicts between doctors and nurses, as well as the encroachment of corporate culture into hospitals. Think unnecessary jargon, endless bureaucracy, over-the-top political correctness, and enforced cheerfulness. You know, the way our health-care system actually is.

Leading the small cast is Alex Borstein (Lois from Family Guy), who plays Dawn, a nurse we first see comfortingly holding a patient’s hand as she dies – and playing Angry Birds on her phone with the other hand. Desperately lonely, cluelessly narcissistic, and beaten down by life and her bosses, you can almost smell Dawn’s stale B.O. through the screen. Borstein’s portrayal of her character’s eternal loserdom is helped by the fact that the show employs no make-up or hair stylists and is filmed only with fluorescent lighting from above.

Just as needy is Doctor Jenna James (Roseanne’s Laurie Metcalf), the poop researcher, who gets demoted in the pilot. Obsessed with earning the respect of her peers, the most kindness Jenna can offer her nurses, patients, or residents is an unconvincing fake grin usually reserved for doctor’s office brochures. Jenna is every doctor who only went to medical school for the prestige – a monster of ambition you can’t help looking down on.

Jenna has a deliriously funny (and characteristic) moment with new nurse DiDi (Niecy Nash of Reno 911!), when the doctor’s demotion to the geriatric center results in the loss of her parking place. When DiDi admits that she doesn’t have a car (she takes LA’s little-used subway system), Jenna tries to paper over the faux pas and assuage her class guilt by reassuring DiDi that her Audi gets great mileage.

DiDi is the one sane and compassionate character who usually knows how to provide solace to the patients. It’s a role that borders the “Magical Negress” role at times and deprives Nash of the comedy showcases her bigger-name co-stars get. But it’s worth noting that rare is the show, even in today’s diverse TV landscape, that allows a trio of frumpy, middle-aged comediennes regular opportunities chance to be funny, unlikable and compelling. Getting On isn’t just a fantastic show – it’s one of a kind.

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