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Facing death is terrifying. And harrowing. And often boring, hilarious, messy, and surreal. Being old—like one-foot-in-the-grave old—is lots of things, but ripe for primetime TV it is not. Thankfully, HBO isn’t primetime, and Getting On is about a whole lot more than the complications of old age.
Set in the geriatric ward of a Southern California hospital, the show is about the wacky troubled weirdos who work there and the elderly patients they serve. Starring Roseanne’s Laurie Metcalf, Family Guy’s Alex Borstein, and Reno 911’s incomparable Niecey Nash as the rag-tag hospital team, the show trades in the oblique sadness and unique comedy that comes from being surrounded by death. These characters are deeply flawed and entirely cringe-worthy, and you can’t take your eyes off them.
Let’s face it: TV can be a very white, thin, and conventionally attractive place. It can be tiresome to see the same damn people—or their doppelgangers—again and again. Getting On has none of those problems, and it’s a stronger show for it. It lets all-star comedic actresses do their thing, and my god are they good. SO GOOD. It’s like a master-class in acting, in timing, and in everything great acting should be. It makes me angry at a world that doesn’t cast them in EVERYTHING.
Besides a cast comprising sunlight and unicorns and everything wonderful, the show is incredibly humane and compassionate. And hilarious.
In one episode, we deal with the horny husband of a patient who comes in for his weekly, dentures-free encounter. In another, we meet a traveling Swedish woman who has the agility of a young Mary Lou Retton. Then, there’s the drama that naturally arises when strong personalities work in close quarters for long periods of time. Oh, and when a male nurse finally arrives—even if he’s most likely gay—a feeding frenzy ensues amongst the staff.
Life can be ugly at the end, and Getting On doesn’t shy away from that, but it also shines a light on the beauty and unexpected kindness that can come from the experience. It lets you soak in the fierceness of a child’s love when she’s defending a dying parent, and the sweetness of a nurse comforting a woman who just lost her sister—even if the nurse has just eaten the dead sibling’s birthday cake, which was baked by her now-bereaved sister.
And that’s what Getting On is. It’s comedy in the face of tragedy. It’s the unexpected joy in the absurdity and inevitability of death. And it’s damn good TV.