Unlike the American version of The Office, which turned the original BBC show’s odious main character into a loveable goofball, Getting On closely follows its British progenitor’s lead. The series features cringe-inducingly self-deluded, insensitive characters, focusing on their awkward relationships and borderline incompetent care in a farcical depiction of the frustration and stagnation that dominate a hospital’s geriatric ward. But like the American Office, this is farce with a heart, shot through with unlikely moments of grace and warmed by an aura of bemused acceptance.
The Billy Barnes Extended Care Unit isn’t one of the glamorous ERs or bustling acute-care floors we’re used to seeing on TV; this is a slow-moving medical backwater, a place for the kinds of ailing elders, many with dementia, who are as shunned by most doctors and nurses as they are by society at large. There are no brilliant diagnoses or life-saving heroic measures here—just doctors and nurses too obsessed with their own problems to notice, let alone care about, the patients they’re supposed to be treating.
Their obsessions reflect a talent for denial so blindered that it borders on comic absurdity. When Dr. Jenna James (Laurie Metcalf) isn’t blurting out private information about her patients or tactlessly informing them that they have no good options, she’s infuriating her nurses with her blithe insensitivity to the economic gulf that separates them from her. She dragoons her reluctant staff into gathering data for a dehumanizing research project she’s conducting on the patients, many of whom are too far gone to know what they’re consenting to. The hospital’s bureaucratic inertia, which makes it all but impossible to effect meaningful changes, is a running joke. Any time anyone tries to improve something, they just make it worse: Patsy’s (Mel Rodriguez) energy-saving initiative puts motion-sensor lights into the bathroom that leave people peeing in the dark and cuts back so much on the electric power that it crashes the unit’s computer system, making all the patient files temporarily inaccessible.
The only one of this bunch who’s any good at her job is Didi Ortley (Niecy Nash), an empathetic nurse who takes time to connect with patients and sit quietly with those who just want company, like the aging party girl played by Betty Buckley, who waves her over to “hold my fuckin’ hand.” One might assume that would make Didi the star of the unit, but the rigid hierarchical structures of institutions like this means she’s the least valued medical professional there, as she’s the lowest-paid and least credentialed. Season two opens on Didi talking to a dying patient, working hard to figure out what she’s trying to say, while Nurse Dawn Forchette (Alex Borstein) eyes her impatiently. After the woman dies, Dawn accuses Didi of “hogging all the limelight, making it all about you.” Didi’s quiet frustration is clear, completely understandable, and poignant, but Dawn’s comment is so galling that you may laugh at its sheer preposterousness.
The demographics of Getting On’s patients and their family members makes the series a rare source of small but juicy guest-star roles for gifted comic actresses of a certain age. Ann Morgan Guilbert is featured in a recurring role as a crafty patient named Birdy who pretends she’s fallen into a coma whenever she wants to get out of something, while in one episode Jean Smart plays Arlene, a woman taking care of a mother-in-law who, due to dementia, doesn’t know her son is dead. Smart reveals Arlene’s character with subtle gestures and expressions, like the look of sorrowful exhaustion that flickers over her face after she fakes a cheery phone call to her dead husband for his mother’s sake. Perhaps it’s true, as her character tells Jenna, that she and her mother-in-law have always hated each other, but what she does for the older woman is a truly moving expression of love, as unmistakable as it is understated.