Watching the pilot of HBO’s “Getting On,” was one of the strangest TV viewing experiences I’ve had. The US sitcom is based on the British series of the same name, and takes place entirely in the Extended Care Unit of Mount Palms Memorial Hospital. The show follows the staff who tend to the elderly patients of the ward. It isn’t a show I was eager to begin. I hate hospitals and I especially hate the prospect of growing close to elderly characters who are suffering or close to death. However, the patients are painted with very broad strokes and (early in the pilot) are little more than comic relief. The staff seem equally one-note, but the humor was enough to keep me interested. The first words in the series are, “There’s a turd on the chair in the lounge,” which sets up a poop joke which extends throughout the episode, devolving and getting funnier and funnier. Those words are uttered by DiDi (Niecy Nash) who is the most sympathetic of all the characters. It is her first day of work in the ward and she is trying to negotiate through miles of red tape and red bags (for coveted stool samples) and her loopy co-workers; who insist that it is shocking to call “feces” “turds” but are less concerned with the comfort of their patients. She is led by clueless head nurse Dawn (Mad TV’s Alex Borstein) who is well meaning but ultimately ineffective at her job. Laurie Metcalf plays Dr. Jenna James with hilarious dead pan ambivalence. Their characters can be summed up in the first 5 minutes of the episode and in context with the chair turd. Dawn immediately jumps to action when learning about the abandoned poop. She demands it be run through a gauntlet of tests to determine exactly where it came from (per hospital policy). She believes the sheepish elderly patient sitting beside it who claims, she didn’t “leave it.” When Dr. James spots the turd she is immediately elated. It is the perfect specimen to add to her fecal collection. Dr. James is pioneering a study to prove that there are in fact 16 categories of stool not a mere 7 as previously thought, “This is the 21 century,” after all. Didi just wants to “put it in a kleenex” so she can tend to her patients. It is clearly established through this fantastic gag that Didi is the empathetic one, Dawn relates better to shit than she does to people and Dr. James is only focused on getting ahead. It’s safe to say that I didn’t connect with any of these characters but they were very funny to watch. In a screamingly funny scene Dawn tries to determine what language a distressed patient is speaking, she suspects it’s Chinese. Didi calls the language line translation services who are unable to come down because it’s a holiday. Dawn improvises by shouting her interpretation (with full accent) to Didi to relay back to the agent. In the end the patient is determined to be saying, “I hate this I want to die. Just kill me” in Cambodian (Dawn “knew it was something like that”). Looking back at this scene I am fascinated that I continued with the episode. A distressed, elderly patient who isn’t getting the care she needs is not something I would normally stomach. The humor and timing is so on point that her situation grazed by me. Laughter was much more important.
Being able to laugh at people who are being marginalized is not what made this such a profound viewing experience for me. That came in the last scene of the episode. Sandy comes to visit her sister Lillian who died in the first minutes of the show. When Dawn explains that Lillian has passed away the camera stays still on Cindy’s face as it sinks into grief. This quiet moment took my breath away. The show suddenly had a pulse. This was a real live person going through real emotions. Suddenly the grey pallet of ward and the shakey camera movements and harsh angles lept out for the first time. All the patients who had been the backdrop of this comic romp are brought into focus. It was devastating. Cindy becomes the voice for them all as she admits, “I didn’t think it was going to happen so fast.” Her incredible wide eyes take everything in as the audience is now conscious of the hardships that are going on all around. Dawn tells Cindy that she was with her sister when she died. While true, she did happen to be giddily texting someone at the time. She lies to Sandy claiming that her sister wanted her to know that she loved her. The episode left me sobbing.
I’ve watched the entire first season of, “Getting On,” and was moved and surprised many times all the while laughing at some really great poop jokes.