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Why you should binge-watch this funny show about old people dying. Really.

Getting On boasts one of TV's best ensemble casts, full of actors who bring desperate, venal characters to brilliant life.
Getting On boasts one of TV's best ensemble casts, full of actors who bring desperate, venal characters to brilliant life.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

You need to watch: Getting On

When is it on: Sunday nights at 10:30 p.m. Eastern on HBO. The second season finale airs tonight. Alternately, both seasons are available on HBO Go, which you should have access to if you are an HBO subscriber.

What is it: This darkly humorous adaptation of a British sitcom of the same name follows the people who work in a minimally funded elder care ward in Long Beach, California. If that sounds depressing, well, it is, as the show's cast — three nurses and a doctor — navigate the problems of trying to deal with easing their patients out of this life in as humane a fashion as possible, while still spending as little money as possible. It is, in some ways, the most sophisticated show on the air about the problems of the American health care system. And, yes, even though it's about very serious subject matter, it also has a deeply twisted sense of humor that you will either be very much into or find off-putting.

Why you should watch: American TV has never been great at handling the subject of death. A character's death is either a flashy story point or something that is all too quickly forgotten about. Even fellow HBO series Six Feet Under was ultimately less about death than about the cost of continued life (and brilliantly so).

But Getting On isn't scared to look death in the eye and laugh. Tonight's finale concludes with a scene where the nurses stand over the bed of a dying patient that's so beautiful and profound that I watched it several times, surprised at its gentle audacity. Getting On takes death as its subject matter, but it's mostly interested in what it might be like to have to look at death so often that it became a kind of routine drudgery.

The characters on Getting On are petty. They're banal. They're self-obsessed. They can, at times, seem impossibly callous. That makes the show a turnoff for some people. But all of those qualities are revealed, the more you watch the show, as survival strategies, meant to help these women and men find ways to keep living while those around them keep dying. In that sense, it's like the flip side of Six Feet — the cost of endless death amid the brevity of life.

All of that sounds very high-minded, but the show rarely is. It has time for fart jokes and sight gags and slapstick. Its writers, Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, almost always find a way to keep the tone perfectly modulated, and they turn the show's finest episodes — like the first season's fifth and this season's third — into little one-act plays that never leave the ward and gain something from that claustrophobia.

The series also boasts one of TV's tightest ensemble casts, led by Laurie Metcalf as Dr. Jenna James, a woman who is ugly and venal and terrible, but mostly because she wants to do the best possible thing she can for her patients. She is a woman driven to be deeply unpleasant because she can't escape the life she's built for herself, and Metcalf plays desperation so very well. She's backed by Alex Borstein, Mel Rodriguez, and, especially, Niecy Nash as three nurses who try to grab whatever piece of the pie they can get their hands on.

What keeps this all from being too cynical and dark is Olsen and Scheffer's rich sense of humanity. They don't hate any of these people. In fact, they quite admire them for what they're capable of doing every day in their line of work. And the show's short seasons last just long enough to give us a full picture of this world, without ever getting too maudlin.

The show's ratings are terrible, so it's unlikely a third season will follow. But this is one of the best things HBO has going right now, so it's worth catching up with while you still can.

You'll know if you're in or out by... the end of the show's second episode, which lands the complicated mixture of tones the series is always going for, balancing perfectly between funny and sad. If you don't find yourself feeling something, you probably should find something else to watch.