HBO’s “Getting On” Has So Much More Life To Give, Says Star Alex Borstein

On Sunday, comedy Getting On began its third and final season on HBO. Over the past two seasons, stars Niecy Nash, Laurie Metcalf, Alex Borstein have brought some of the most compassionate and macabre humor on TV to this offbeat comedy that revolves around the lives of a hospital’s overworked nurses and self-involved doctors.

In contrast to the slew of high-budget medical dramas where doctors perform miraculous, life-saving operations every episode, the charm of Getting On is that it centers on the dark-comedy realities of end-of-life care. Show writers Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer intentionally set out to write a show about eldercare, after both of them helped their mothers get proper healthcare at the end of their lives. As Scheffer told Indiewire

Getting On is about healthy and unhealthy codependence. It’s about love. It’s about how women in largely patriarchal systems learn to take their own power. It’s about class struggle and how it goes largely pushed into unconsciousness in our society and it’s about how the elderly, illness and the death experience is also compartmentalized in our society.”

It’s incredible to watch the show nimbly maneuver from somber topics into light comedy: The characters’ personalities clash and their patients are there to die. But don’t let the idea of hospice humor scare you off. Getting On is about making people laugh in the face of death. “So many people have told me they’re afraid to watch it,” says Alex Borstein, who plays head nurse Dawn Forchette. “But the darkness leads you to the light again, so it’s worth it.”

The show is one of the least-watched comedies on HBO. But the people who have found the show are often devoted fans. As critic Matt Wilstein notes, Getting On has been “the rare platform for older actresses (and the occasional actor) to perform broad comedy with just enough devastation lurking beneath the surface.” Part of why Getting On resonates with its fans is because the story centers on women who are all over the age of 40. There are far too few complex roles for older women on TV, but the nurses and doctors of Getting On are all given the space and screentime to feel real and flawed. In the filming of the third season, Borstein particularly remembers a scene involving accomplished actors Laurie Metcalf, Frances Conroy, and Mary Kay Place. Typically, says Borstein, those three women “would show up to the same audition for one part and it would be brushed with broad strokes.” But in Getting On, “ There are three women who are painted so delicately with tiny brushes that they stand out completely differently. You don’t see that TV anymore.”  

Niecy Nash as Nurse DiDi

The show is a mix of physical comedy and sincere, more moving moments. The third season begins with Dawn, an upbeat nurse who often has romantic misadventures, celebrating her impromptu marriage to a hospital security guard in the facility’s gift shop. The scene is both silly and sad. “I never thought it’s gone too far or too dark,” says Borstein. “It’s this balance.” 

The fact that HBO is letting the show end on its own terms—rather than just axing it, as happens so often on TV—says a lot about the importance of the show’s creative team and fanbase. The show has gotten some critical acclaim for its performances: Last season, Nash nabbed an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. When I talked with Borstein during the last week of filming for seasons three this fall, she was hopeful that another channel would pick up Getting On now that it’s coming to a close on HBO. “The third season surpasses the first two. Shit gets real,” said Borstein. “Were it to be our last season, it would be an incredible send-off. But it doesn’t have to be; it’s set up that we may continue in another form.” 

Related Listening: Alex Borstein talked about Getting On in our “Hollywood's Missing Directors” podcast episode. 

by Monica Castillo
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Monica Castillo is a freelance film critic. You can usually find her on Twitter talking about the movie she just watched at @mcastimovies.

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2 Comments Have Been Posted

Getting On

I'm waiting for Patricia Clarkson to come on board. I actually thought she was the beautiful woman in Season One singing "If you're going to San Francisco" (while she was in bed). She did look completely different in front of the TV.
What a smart, funny yet poignant comedy. One of HBO's finest in a decade or more.

Getting On

Great write-up, although it's a shame you didn't reference the original British series, of which this is an adaptation. The UK version was written by Vicki Pepperdine, Joanna Scanlan and Jo Brand, all experienced comic actresses, and explains a lot about why the series has such a female-centric perspective.

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