HBO’s “Getting On” — a Slightly Contrarian Mini Review

© 2013 Peter Free


26 December 2013



It may take a medical background to appreciate Getting On’s underlying, loving genius regarding the human condition


The contrarian component of my review nuances the ideas that this is “hilarious” comedy (Mary McNamara, LA Times) or “I’ve never laughed so hard about the frail and failing”:



HBO’s gutsy new series Getting On, which starts this Sunday night and is based on a British show of the same name, is set on a hospital’s geriatric extended-care floor. This middling facility is a stopover for elderly patients recovering from surgery and strokes, and a more permanent home for those with Alzheimer’s and dementia.


On the 36-bed ward, old people poop on chairs, screech in foreign languages, curse out the staff, copulate in public spaces, vomit, fall, and die. But Getting On is not a drama, it’s a deadpan, absurdist comedy. I’ve never laughed so hard about the frail and failing.


© 2013 Willa Paskin, Getting On, Slate (22 November 2013) (paragraph split)


These perceptions a reasonable, but they imply a self-protecting distance in the exercise of compassion that I am not quite able to bring.  I suspect the same may true of a high proportion of those who make their careers in end of life medical caregiving.


It was not accident, I think, that my daughter — deep into her doctorate program as a nursing practitioner — or my wife — a former teaching hospital floor nurse (in the most professionally demanding units) and a medical supervisor — both see compassionate depths in this series that most viewers probably miss.


The tendency of reviews regarding Getting On emphasize the absurdity of the scenes depicted.  These evaluations are true and not true at the same time.  For people occupationally involved in caretaking at the geriatric end of life, Getting On’s seemingly ridiculous flights into poop, sex, and raging denunciations (of engagingly flawed medical staff) ring impressionistically accurate.



A deeper hook


Smile though I do, through each episode, there is deeper barb to this series that hooks me, namely that:


We’re in this together, flawed characters and all.


If caring does not bind, nothing will.


The show throws penetrating observational darts in different directions, at varying heights of apparent fancifulness.


Anchoring our perception of what should make common, administrative, and compassionate sense in each situation is that belonging to the (apparently licensed practical) nurse — not surprisingly at the low end of the medical totem pole — “Didi”, exquisitely played by Nieci Nash:


Were I given the assignment of teaching medical caretakers how to “bedside manner” difficult patients, I would pull up some of Didi’s scenes as examples to emulate.  Nash’s portrayal of nursing compassion is astonishing in its quiet, off the cuff, humanity.



The take away — even in the absurd, grace


I mentioned at the outset of this overview that it may take a caregiver’s mentality to fully appreciate Getting On.  Most episodes have a couple of seemingly throw-away visual clips that capture what I think is the show’s often nearly hidden message about compassion.  Grace, if you will.


In one, Didi helps an elderly woman to toilet, helping her stand at the end of the process, wiping her bottom, “clean as a whistle.”


The camera cuts away to a position from the apparent end of a hallway, looking back toward the dim-lighted night hospital scene.  Across the distant field of view comes the elderly woman, her walker and Didi, supporting both — walking backward in a back-achingly, slightly forward lean — the tableau moving excruciatingly slowly.



Highly recommended


I have seen five episodes of Getting On.  Each is a gem.  And each, I think, deeper than casual observation wants to admit.


For example, I Variety reviewer Brian Lowry arguably missed the point, with his observation that:



[W]hatever humor graces these hallways is so dry it’s questionable whether “comedy” is the proper classification.


There is a conversation to be had about the warehousing of old people in an age of rising life expectancy, and both comedy and drama to be mined from it. But while HBO seems like the right place for that sort of project, “Getting On” isn’t the show to do it.


© 2013 Brian Lowry, HBO's U.K.-adapted comedy about dysfunctional hospital needs a creative transfusion, Variety (19 November 2013)


Mr. Lowry’s objection to too “dry” humor misunderstands that end of life issues — and society and medicine’s institutionalized reluctance to deal with them — are simultaneously reflections of the absurdity of the human condition and compassion’s ability to blunt their edges.


What I have seen so far in Getting On is (often surprisingly subtle) genius, in writing, acting, and cinematography.


How long Getting On’s writers and actors can keep this up, I do not know.  But the first season so far has been excellent.