Watching Getting On, it’s easy to believe that the extended care ward of this poorly run hospital in Long Beach is the ends of the earth—the restaurant at the end of the universe. It's more an uncomfortable waiting room than anything else—a transitional space between life and death, but one that has the comforts of neither. Our primary window into this grim world is Dawn Forchette, registered nurse. Dawn is not your typical main character. She's the shallow, doormat type usually reserved for frustrating coworkers or distant relatives—because who cares about the interiority of a woman who is incompetent and grating, self-pitying and narcissistic? She's an afterthought of society—a character washed up in an unforgiving job, caring for other afterthoughts of society.
Nothing about this show screams entertainment. Nothing about it sounds even slightly promising as the setting of a comedy. Hospitals the world over have been set pieces for comedies and dramas aplenty, but this mismanaged department, at the bottom of the hospital's food chain? This is the room in the hospital that everyone dashes through as quickly as they can. No one stays here unless they absolutely have to.
Getting On is an American remake of a British import, and as Todd VanDerWerff pointed out in his advance review of the first five episodes, it feels like The Office. Except, if it this is even possible, darker. This isn't just suburban office workers losing their souls—this is suburban office workers working quietly while people die around them. In that sense only, Getting On's first episode is hard to watch. The camera is merciless, zooming in on the lonely, isolated patients in their beds. And the writers are unafraid to show our characters lying to patients, cheating the system, or manipulating their fellow co-workers to get what they want.
But Getting On is funny—very funny. It’s so perverse and tragic, it almost has to be funny. It's very British in that sense—exposing a dark corner of our lives, and then mining it for comedic value.
The tone of the episode is set right at the beginning. We see a patient on the bed, with a cake next to her. The numeral candles stuck in the frosting spell out “87,” but the patient, Lillian, is not celebrating. She is dead. The camera zooms out to show us Dawn, sitting next to her, playing a video game on her mobile phone. The sound effects are cheerful and triumphant. Then she leans over, looks at Lillian’s face, and realizes her patient has stopped breathing. There is no fanfare, no sadness. And then the new nurse Deedee pops her head in. “There's a turd on the chair.” A what? Oh yes. Feces. On. The. Chair. The death is shelved for now—quite literally, Lillian's death certificate is partially filled out and placed on file, for when her sister comes to pick her up. And then Dawn and Deedee move to address the shit that is in the middle of the room.
I'll never quite understand the alchemy that goes into making dark humor. It’s a brave art form, and harder, I think, than straight drama. It's easy for this comedy to go too far, with gross-out pranks. It’s also easy for this comedy to not go far enough, to pull its punches. That sweet spot in the middle—usually brought to light through careful, incisive writing—is unparalleled, when it’s reached.
Getting On gets there more than once in its pilot episode. The rigamarole around the turd isn't exactly laugh-out-loud funny, but it plays out like absurdist theatre. At one point, the chair is wrapped with police tape and shoved into a corner; eventually, a doctor, the head nurse, and the two junior nurses stand in a hallway, screaming at each other, while patients in various degrees of consciousness look on. Take a step forward, closer to the action, and this is a tragic scene—one that reveals how complicated and silly healthcare bureaucracy can be, one that strips bare rationale to demonstrate how badly healthcare functions. Take a step back, and it’s a farce—a caper, of sorts, with these cartoonish characters screaming at each other, brandishing stretchers with patients on them as if they are bargaining chips. But where Getting On positions us, it’s painfully, hilariously, both. It doesn’t give us the luxury of stepping back, but it doesn’t give us the moral high ground of stepping forward. It is, as I said, merciless.
This really, really hits home at the end of the pilot. After an exhausting day, in which a doctor has brandished a scalpel at a nurse and somehow gotten promoted, Dawn requisitions Lillian's birthday cake and digs into it at the nurses' station. Just then, Lillian’s sister walks in. She doesn’t know her sister has passed. Dawn thought the head nurse Beverly was going to break it to her—but in the confrontation with Dr. Jenna James, Beverly’s been transferred. Dawn suddenly has to break it to the woman that her sister has died, and she has to do it with a mouth full of the dead woman's birthday cake.
To her credit—and maybe this is the real twist of the knife—Dawn succeeds, swimmingly. She comforts the woman as best she can, inventing a death in which Lillian asked Dawn to tell her sister that she loved her, and that Dawn held her hand until she passed. Her sister is clearly moved and grateful. And life goes on at the hospital. The muddled irony and thwarted justice in the ward are constantly present, but also, occasionally, make a little bit of sense.
- Welcome to the weekly reviews of Getting On, a show which will likely be entirely ignored because it’s airing on Sundays over the holidays. But that's okay, show, because I’m still here.
- In the British version of the show, Getting On tackled politics a bit, by taking digs at the National Health Service. I don’t know if the American version will take similar digs at Medicare/Obamacare/the private insurance industry, but here’s hoping for some good critique.
- Dr. Jenna James: History’s worst doctor? Only time will tell.