A Premature Eulogy for ‘Getting On,’ A Show That’s Always Anticipated Death


Getting On — a show that follows underdogs as they care for society’s biggest yet perhaps most invisible underdog (the elderly) — is afraid of very little: not even death, and especially its own. From the beginning, this show has never pandered to expectations that TV shows should be aesthetically pleasing — its concerted lack of interest on that front is visible throughout, from the handheld camerawork to the focus on shriveled parts to the anemic palette of the geriatric ward to every characters’ exhausted faces. It’s also never pandered to expectations that TV shows should be sexy: the only sex you’ll see is between two sneaky octogenarians — one of whom is known for leaving fecal surprises around the ward — or between two creepily co-dependent nurses. And perhaps most refreshingly, it has never pandered to expectations of any type of male perspective on TV: the three central characters are women, and all three (DiDi, played by Niecy Nash; Dawn, played by Alex Borstein; and Dr. Jenna James, played by Laurie Metcalf) make for some of the best performances currently on TV.

Sadly, though, Getting On is now entering its third and last season — due most likely to the fact that society doesn’t like confronting old age, and certainly not on television. But as mentioned, unlike the rest of society, this show never turned away from death, and its last season is its best season yet.

As it prepares for its own demise, Getting On seems to have amped itself up, relishing everything that made it unlike other shows — most notably its mercilessly gross body humor. [Note that from here on out, there are some spoilers from the first few episodes.] In the second episode of this season, a group of nurses huddle around an elderly woman’s clogged backside, wielding the enterprising Dr. James’ newest invention — an “anal horn” with a balloon tip that shatters tenacious turds. But the clogging begins to seem too extensive even for an inflatable poo-smasher, and the nurses aren’t having any luck… until a sudden geysers erupts onto the jacket of the most scat-averse nurse present. Thinking it’s over, the also-finnicky supervising Nurse Patsy De la Cerda (Mel Rodriguez) — who avoids bodies at all costs — steps in, and then gets it straight in the face.

From this description alone, this all might sound like an incredibly cheap gag. Scatological humor is traditionally seen as a desperate, cultural least common denominator, and denigrated for its effortless arousal of cheap laughter. It seemingly has no place in what viewers of “prestige television” are looking for. Rarely has a shit joke left audiences just as sad and existentially uneasy as it’s left them either laughing thoughtlessly or gagging and annoyed at the inanity — but on Getting On there’s almost always a brilliant, curious combination of all of the above. Deteriorating and dying bodies are, simply, prone to doing (and secreting) things that’d, indeed, make you gag. The show’s point is that’s okay, that happens — but you needn’t look away. (Looking away from the final stages of life is the very tendency that seems to have plagued Getting On‘s ratings.)

Every fecal moment, every line about “trying to stop bladders and vaginas from just dropping into rectums” is delivered within the context of a show that’s unafraid to be just as sensitive, and even subtle, as it is to be ridiculous — often to affectively jarring results. These unpalatable corporeal moments, the show reminds us, are the universal result of the formula of human + time, and in almost every episode, the show creates a bridge between the still-spry-ish staff and the dying. If Six Feet Under confronted death and funereal rituals head on, Getting On, with just as much sick humor and empathy, takes on the even slower, agonizing process of preparing to die.

The show complicates this process by always having a nurse or doctor projecting their own heightened baggage of living to patients’ experience of dying. This baggage often derives from this American adaptation’s keen eye on U.S. social hierarchies — seen through the stratified pay, treatment and lifestyles of doctors versus nurses. (The emotional/social complexity of this baggage is a strength, while perhaps the show’s greatest weakness — apart from occasional plot lines that go nowhere — is that it doesn’t make quite enough of an effort to immerse us in, or even to feature, the perspectives of its elderly characters.)

Dr. James is at the top of the hierarchy within the geriatric care ward, (though outside of that she’s battling the constant fear of being disregarded for being a female doctor.) This season she’s battling her potential replacement over her major ethics breach (last season, she funneled people into a new hospice care program in order to fund her research on vaginal atrophy — this season, her scientific focus has shifted to the aforementioned anal horn).

Metcalf’s Dr. James character is bigger, more neurotic, and more gloriously offensive than ever before — though she hilariously and ineffectually attempts to hide her selfishness and inappropriateness behind a tightly wound politesse and overwrought turns of phrase. This season, James gloms on to a patient she realizes survived Auschwitz, overemphasizing the importance of “her story” to the point where she favors the patient in question to other patients, trying to preserve her strictly due to said story. Meanwhile, she cluelessly tries to state the obvious — that the Holocaust was bad — by saying, “I don’t know how I would live in a world where Auschwitz [never happened] — the moral clarity of it!” In another scene, while declaring that she’s being discriminated against because of her gender rather than her hospice-related ethical breach, she exclaims that the world is at war with women, throws a cloth over her head, and shouts, “I’m in Pakistan, shoot me in the head. I’m in India, rape me.” The show — rightly — trusts Metcalf’s impeccable performance enough to know that these lines will come across as reflecting poorly on James as opposed to the show itself.

Meanwhile, DiDi (the only character here who’s truly empathic with her patients, but who is undervalued and overlooked — largely due to her race — while also being overworked and overwhelmed by a large family) is caught up in her latest family drama that’s easing its way into her professional life. Her incapacitated (white) stepmother has fallen from her bed, and now her whole family is split — largely because of the financial burdens, and in part because some members claim this woman was their father’s “trophy wife” — over what to do with her. As always, Nash’s character seems to be the one voice of reason on the show, but here even her patience is being tested. It’s compounded by the fact that she and the rest of the nursing staff have found out that the geriatric ward may soon be shut down completely, and that she might be out of a job.

Alex Borstein’s Dawn is something of a social (and to this point, romantic) pariah more than anyone else, and takes to heart the bounty of patients that come in and die alone; in this season, she finds out that she has a 10 percent functioning kidney, that she has six to eight years to live, and begins dialysis. Emphasizing Dawn’s emotional isolation, Dr. James at one point comments — again, trying and failing utterly to be sensitive — that she wouldn’t “know enough about her to give a eulogy.”

Dawn disdains her new husband for being emotionally closed, and begins, in the midst of her sudden diagnosis, forming a fantasy relationship (which seems likely to be rekindled as a full-on relationship) with the potentially gay Nurse de La Cerda. (They’d dated previously.)

The new season boasts — amidst all the enthusiastic squirting of enemas — one of the most troubling, well-rendered moments in (my) recent television memory. Dr. James has set up a webcam/screen on a rolling robot for a patient who’s being monitored from her home. At one point, the patient dies, and the Dr. James-headed robot roams the now vacant house, searching for her. After the paramedics come and remove the body, Dawn, who as mentioned, often foresees herself expiring through her patients, steps into the webcam’s view, her face now showing up atop the robot. The camera cuts to the empty home, now dark, with Dawn’s head staring out into it.

It is bleak moments like this that show how the potentially excessive poop humor, how the meticulous mining of status within the hospital, how characters’ comical outbursts — are all aimed in the same direction: of endings. It’s no surprise that this show is handling its own so adroitly, with the smooth release of a bowel movement that’s just been anal horned.