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Review: HBO’s hospital farce Getting On finds heart and momentum in its final season

Review: HBO’s hospital farce Getting On finds heart and momentum in its final season


As it nears the end, Getting On gets even better

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"You know why all the history books are written by men?" Nurse DiDi Ortley asks, as the third and final season of Getting On begins. "Because women were too busy getting all of the work done." Who does the work, and who simply takes credit for it, is a tension at the heart of HBO’s smart workplace comedy, where doctors, nurses, and administrators all jockey for position in a hospital extended care unit where the only contented people seem to be the newly dead.

Based on a British series with the same name, the American version of Getting On retains its predecessor’s bleak premise but roots itself firmly in America’s demented health care system. It is one of the smallest shows on HBO, both in size (each season consists of just six 30-minute episodes) and in popular reception (it has stayed stubbornly under the radar). Despite a well-deserved Emmy nomination for Niecy Nash, who plays DiDi, Getting On is the sort of show you stumble on while browsing HBO Go and then wonder why you’ve never heard of it before.

That’s how I found it, anyway, and over the course of two seasons it became one of my favorite things on TV. The dire, claustrophobic hospital offers occasions for both wild farce and genuine pathos, almost always in the same episode. And it’s a rare premium cable show starring mostly women that’s as much about their work as it is about their love lives. These are people with careers, and dreams of a better life for themselves — and while men sometimes fit into that, they are rarely the focus.

A rare show about women that's as much about work as it is about love

As the second season of Getting On came to a close, Dr. Jenna James (Laurie Metcalf) and her staff had become the target of a fraud investigation by Medicaid. (James took kickbacks in exchange for enrolling non-terminal patients in a hospice program; James used the money to finance her study on female fecal incontinence.) At the start of the third and final season, which begins airing Tuesday, the staff has somehow escaped with their jobs intact. But eight months after the events of the second season finale, a new doctor has been ordered to work with them and serve as a kind of ethics monitor, and the air at the hospital is thick with talk of impending layoffs.

getting on

Lacey Terrell (HBO)

More than ever, Metcalf looks to be having the time of her life playing Dr. James, a manic geriatric researcher with delusions of grandeur who is forever attempting to enroll her patients in clinical trials — consequences be damned. (James’ research always tends toward the fecal, the sexual, and the elderly, which the show exploits for the rich body horror they provide.) James is alternately aided and thwarted by her head nurse, Dawn Forchette, played with winsome naïveté by Alex Borstein. And Dawn’s insane on-and-off sexual relationship with a (gay male) fellow nurse, Patsy De La Serda, accounts for some of the show’s funniest moments — while also earning its keep on HBO (there’s apparently a surprising amount of banging that goes on in a hospital ward).

HBO made the first four episodes available for review, and each one offers a rich, cascading series of disasters to behold. Getting On has never been a densely plotted show, and while it’s never quite dragged, there have been moments where I’ve wondered whether it had a master plan. But as it moves toward its finale, the series has found a new momentum, with each episode feeling like it’s building toward a climax. More than ever, Getting On has embraced its setting’s most slapstick (and gross-out) possibilities. Vaginal cream plays a starring role in season three, as does a dubious invention of Dr. James’ known as "the anal horn." The device lies on an operating table like Chekhov’s gun in the early part of the season; when it is eventually put into action — which is to say into a patient — the results had me screaming.

A dubious invention known as "the anal horn."

More seriously, Getting On serves to document how our personal lives intersect with work in the most inconvenient of ways. In season two, DiDi — the moral center of the show, and typically the only character seen doing any real work in an episode — had to deal with a temporary assignment working with her difficult half-sister. This season, her stepmother arrives at the hospital after an accident, and a battalion of quarreling family members come along with her, second-guessing DiDi’s every decision.

The subplot is often played for laughs — DiDi and her family are black, and her stepmother is white, leading to constant misunderstandings with other staff members. But it also highlights the very real decisions families have to make around end-of-life care — decisions we prefer to put off for as long as possible. (The stepmother, who has had a stroke, cannot speak for herself.) And for DiDi, it’s all happening inside her workplace, constantly distracting her as she attempts to do her real job. On Getting On everything is personal, and because of that, there’s no real escaping it.

DiDi aside, there are no real heroes on the show: only characters who occasionally achieve dignity in the face of total disaster. (That anal horn will really do a number on you.) My favorite moment so far in season three comes when the smarmy Dr. James finds herself at the bedside of a terminally ill patient who suddenly blurts out: "I love you for all that you do for me." Are her words sincere, and meant for Dr. James? Or are they the random neural firings of an addled mind?

Dr. James, for once, is silent, and looks on with a mix of shock, sadness, and appreciation. The patient will be dead by the episode’s end, and no resolution ever comes. What sticks with you is the odd sweetness that keeps creeping into this sour old hospital and the people who run it. As it shuffles toward its own end, Getting On has become a tribute to the last people we’ll ever meet. Flawed though they are, the doctors and nurses at the Billy Barnes Extended Care Unit usually do come through for their patients in the end, serving them with tenderness and mercy. Whatever calamities befall them along the way, the patients go in peace. For the hospital staff, there’s nothing to be done but pay their respects, and get on with it.