November 25, 2013

THE SKED Series Premiere Review: “Getting On”


GETTING ON:  Sunday 10PM on HBO – Worth A Look

It’s probably safe to assume that when a network launches a short run of a new series to air only during the holiday season, and that show isn’t at all holiday-related, the show isn’t prominent in the network’s long-term plans.  HBO is turning its Sunday night line-up through December (until the much more high-profile debut of True Detective and return of Girls) to the abbreviated final season of Treme (premiering next week), the drag-show Ja’mie: Private School Girl, and GETTING ON, a comedy set in the extended care geriatric ward of a Southern California hospital.  Uncommercial in the extreme, the odds are that it won’t long survive its 6 episode run, but it’s a more substantial piece of work than its filler status might imply.

Getting On is based on a British format, with the US version created by Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, who gave HBO Big Love.  (They wrote tonight’s premiere episode, which was directed by Miguel Arteta.)  The series is very tightly confined to its ward–during the initial episode, the cameras never leave that setting.  There’s no music until the end credits, and only 3 regular characters:  the ward’s head nurse Dawn (Alex Borstein, best known as the voice of Lois and other characters on Family Guy), newcomer Didi (Niecy Nash), and Dr. Jenna James (Laurie Metcalf).  Jenna is the main source of comedy, being the very definition of “high-strung” and initially balancing duties at the main hospital with serving as acting head of the geriatric ward.  That doesn’t last long; she’s running some kind of study in the categorization of fecal matter, and after she has a meltdown on the ward floor when a patient’s excrement is flushed down the toilet rather than being preserved for her study, the board demotes her to working in the geriatric unit only.

The series is something like what Nurse Jackie might be like if there weren’t a Nurse Jackie, and the early indication is that in terms of entertainment value, it could sorely use that kind of charismatic center.  It’s the opposite of “aspirational”:  Borstein and Nash are very good as quietly decent nurses, and there’s something admirable about the way Getting On preserves the dignity of dealing with the very old and feeble (and dying), but it’s not clear whether this is something that’s going to be compelling on a weekly basis.  Metcalf’s character is much broader, and at first glance, Jenna doesn’t mesh with the rest of the show, but perhaps now that she’s a full-time presence on the ward, Jenna will make more sense in the context of the series.

The half-hour is unavoidably grim, with one of the major storylines concerning the wait for a patient’s sister to arrive so she can be told that her sibling has died on her 87th birthday, including a scene inventorying the spare belongings she had at the end.  Getting On is concerned with the reality of life in a depressing place, unlike Six Feet Under, which used its last-stop setting as a leaping-off point for soap opera and fantasy.  It’s not boring, though, thanks to the actors and Arteta’s making the most of the visual restraints.  Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine there being much of an audience for a series like this (and Treme, as fine as it is, won’t give it much of a lead-in), so barring some critical or awards buzz, one imagines Getting On will go the same way soon enough as its patients.  Nevertheless, it’s an unusual and sincere attempt to deal with a tough subject.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."