Getting On, the new six-part HBO comedy whose first installment will air this Sunday, is a bit of a hard sell going in. This is a show set in a grumpy, dreary (women) seniors ward in a hospital. There aren’t a lot of sunshine or roses to be had. The three main characters, played by Laurie Metcalf, Niecy Nash, and Alex Borstein, are their world-weary caregivers. The patients, played by a variety of salty older actors including Harry Dean Stanton, do portraits of old age as more biting than touching. There is a demographic reason to resist this sort of thing; most people of my generation are facing down 40 years of living in a country that will resemble this ward.
Nonetheless, I like the show. I can see that there are certain aspects of its execution that feel a little much. There is a shot of Harry Dean Stanton and a paramour, for example, later in the show that will stop you in your socks, and not in the good way. It feels more like a reach for offensiveness than humor. But then the show also had the only extended-play poop joke I’ve ever actually laughed at, so the execution’s not exactly off. And within about ten minutes of the first episode, I was completely enamored of Niecy Nash’s deadpan delivery. It’s just that, like most television shows, it still needs a little time to cook. It’s the rare show whose first episodes are completely brilliant. But these are pretty damn good.
It’s possible my overwhelming love of Laurie Metcalf is blinding me, but I think it’s also just that I want room among television’s Sour Shows — the bastard children of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, you might call them — for a women-led show. It’s true that Veep already presents a women-in-charge version of the aesthetic. But there are other kinds of women in the world than the power-suited, buttoned-up ones, and they’re not getting enough air on television right now. And their ironic distance from the crassness of life — and in particular, the crassness of life on a seniors ward — is a thing I’d like to hear more about.
That puts me in more or less direct opposition to the perspective voiced by Variety’s television critic, earlier this week, on the work of Sarah Silverman. He was complaining specifically (and thematically, for my purposes!) about the comedy special she recorded for HBO. This guy, Brian Lowry, believes that
Comics often impress each other with that kind of bawdy fare (see “The Aristocrats”), but Silverman frequently seems to be playing more toward those peers and a loyal cadre of fans than a broader audience that’s apt to be turned off by the questionable stuff, which feels more about shock value than cleverness. And if she really think saying “c—t” repeatedly is a form of artistic expression, more power to her, but in commercial terms, indulging those impulses comes at a price. This isn’t meant to suggest that female comics can’t work blue. The lament here is that in the wrong hands it can feel gratuitous or become a crutch, whereas unlike many of her contemporaries, Silverman has enough tools that she can and should do more.
If this is word salad to you, it’s word salad to me too. The “price” Lowry refers to is extracted only from women, and the idea that this stuff is “gratuitous” or a “crutch” is disproportionately applied to women. It’s not that I don’t agree that offensiveness has limits; I just think it’s strange to put women under a more stringent regime than men, when there’s kind of a lot of territory left to be mined, gross-out humor-wise, in women’s experience. (Sadly for male comics, in that department the soil’s getting a bit over-tilled.)
I would hate to see something as full of potential Getting On get run down by these sorts of attitudes. But then, just looking around at the early reviews, I see someone at Salon complaining that “As Variety acknowledged, Metcalf’s character is sadly one-dimensional. Dr. James’ fidgety iciness, while funny in spurts, rapidly wears thin — as these bad boss characters often do” right after he’s noted it’s a character in the Michael Scott mode. I suspect what Neil Drumming might be getting at is that Steve Carell can be read as cute when playing a morally reprehensible character. I guess I’d ask him to think about just why he’s just not prepared to extend that read to someone as wonderful and talented as Metcalf.