In tonight’s first episode of Getting On, HBO’s adaptation of a British comedy hit, nurse DiDi Ortley (Niecy Nash, Reno 911!) reports for her first day of work at the Billy Barnes Extended Care Unit of Mt. Palms Hospital in Long Beach, Calif. The facility is dedicated to improving the lives of its elderly charges, who are “getting on” in years, but DiDi soon begins to wonder whether she’s wandered into an asylum by mistake.
The first red flag pops up when DiDi notices that one of the senior patients has had an accident in one of the TV room chairs. Her immediate instinct is a very logical one: Grab a piece of tissue, remove the offending “souvenir” and flush it in the nearest restroom. Unfortunately, she hasn’t reckoned with the red tape and politics that clog the cogs at any contemporary American medical facility.
Her senior colleague, nurse Dawn Forchette (Alex Bornstein, MADtv’s resident madwoman), is reluctant to allow the matter in question to be collected and removed until someone fills out the required “incident report” paperwork and tested the collected sample to determine which patient was responsible.
Meanwhile, temporary medical director Dr. Jenna James (three-time Emmy winner Laurie Metcalf, Roseanne) has a completely different agenda. She wants the matter collected for a “prestigious fecal study” she is currently working on for the New England Journal of Medicine.
That may sound nuts – and it is – but Jenna is a walking raw nerve who refuses to admit that her once-promising career is now in a death spiral. She may be telling anyone who is listening that she is merely filling in temporarily until a permanent medical director can be found, but in truth, Jenna has been exiled to this unit from the main facility since she had a breakdown and started waving around a scalpel and “allegedly” menacing some of her colleagues.
In its first six-episode season, Getting On follows these three prickly women as they struggle to do their jobs under very challenging conditions, including a rapidly cratering rating for their level of care.
Still, nothing bonds adversaries like a common enemy. In this case, that would be newly arrived supervising (male) nurse Patrizio “Patsy” De La Serda (Mel Rodriguez, Community), who refers to patients as “customers” and favors motivational posters and New Age-speak like “Don’t go through life. GROW through life.” He also plans to improve the facility’s rating through a cruise ship-based strategy that includes having a fountain and pianist on the premises.
Complicating the staff chemistry even further, “Patsy” is more than a little confused about his sexuality. He’s secretly having no-strings sex with Dawn, a woman with no personal boundaries and a bottomless hunger for approval, yet he’s eager to file a grievance against DiDi when she makes a harmless sexual joke to defuse a tense situation with a patient. Moreover, he and Jenna are engaged in a constant deathmatch over which of them is actually running the unit.
Clearly, Getting On is drawing on a mother lode of character quirks to drive its storylines and all three of the stars turn in rich, quirky performances. If I single out Metcalf, it’s only because I had forgotten how much I miss seeing this extraordinary actress on a weekly basis, and she brilliantly takes a brittle character and fills her with pathos, complexity and, every now and then, a glimmer of real compassion.
Getting On is certainly not your run-of-the-mill sitcom, nor is it for viewers with delicate sensibilities. It takes a lot of worthwhile risks, however, and in doing so only makes us admire healthcare workers more than ever, even as we observe them comically at the end of their ropes.