“If You’re Going To San Francisco” doesn’t have that razor-sharp black humor that characterized the pilot—nor does it maintain that delicate balance between comedy and tragedy nearly as well. Mostly, it succeeds with Varla, the loopy, bipolar woman who terrorizes the nursing staff, in between vomiting on herself. It doesn’t resonate quite as well with the subplot about Donna, the ex-Hollywood singer, which is too bad. That’s where the episode title comes from, and from where the half-hour is supposed to derive its emotional impact. That unevenness lands tonight’s episode into solid B territory. The ideas are good, but the execution is just okay.
I have to say, though: The Varla stuff is brilliant. It needed a conclusion that was softer than what it got—though I’ve thought about it, and every possible avenue feels cliché. Varla is an angry, mean-spirited patient who comes into the ward and raises all kinds of hell. She calls DiDi a “coon dyke,” rants to everyone about how she's a “real” American (she takes offense at the confused Cambodian lady), and repeatedly tries to escape the ward. She’s so casually terrible that it takes a few scenes to realize that she's not evil; she’s just figured out one way to get around in the world, and that’s by being cruel. Well, that and she isn’t on her psychotropic medication, because one of the attending physicians neglected to send over her chart.
For the day that our heroes have to take care of her—and they are joined by Patsy De La Serda, played with neurotic impatience by Mel Rodriguez—they have to spend almost all their time on her, coaxing her to put down her makeshift weapons and to sit still long enough to clean off the vomit that keeps collecting on her hospital gown. Varla is too stubborn to do it. The episode introduces her as the enemy—she insults and bullies DiDi, which is hard to watch. DiDi is our point of reference for the show, seemingly the only sane character in the entire ward, and when anyone shits on her—from the charming Dr. Jenna to power-tripping Patsy—it’s painful. You always want to reach through the screen to the ward and say something like, “DiDi, you’re not insane, these people are terrible.”
I think that’s why the Donna story doesn't work that well—even though it’s heartbreaking to see Donna’s decline, set to the bars of “If You’re Going To San Francisco,” the fact that DiDi gets her is not surprising. We know DiDi is the empathetic one. We get that she cares about her patients, even though the job is awful. She has a basic wellspring of human kindness that she can draw on, day-to-day. It's just not that interesting that DiDi sees the tragedy of Donna’s life. I liked how her life became nurses’ station chatter, right before she began to decline. But in searching for that payoff, the episode wasted a little bit of time in scenes that didn't feel either funny or meaningful, and that's too much extra fat for a very short episode.
But DiDi’s role in the show is why the Varla storyline works so well by the end. As DiDi helps her to bed after one of Varla’s outbursts, she says with sarcasm: “You ever notice how it always ends up being just you and me?” It’s true—DiDi is the least important person on the ward, and Varla is the least fun person to have around. But she becomes DiDi’s secret champion by the end of the episode—most notably, reaming into Patsy, who earlier had yelled at DiDi for inefficiency. It’s like Varla is the id that DiDi isn’t allowed to be, because she’s a professional. And it’s interesting that Getting On lets a mentally ill patient be complicated. So far, this show has been showcasing characters that don’t seem much like anyone else on television, and that’s exciting.
- I liked Patsy, though I also thought that perhaps his existence is just too much of a joke. He didn’t get a chance in this episode to be much more than a caricature.
- Jenna James is my favorite person to hate right now. The look on her face when her boss tells her that he hopes she doesn’t see this job as a punishment is priceless. Also, I’m glad her car got towed.