HBO's 'Getting On': Why it's okay to laugh at old people

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Image Credit: Dale Robinette/HBO

Yes, I know: you don’t want to watch a TV show about old people.

You don’t want to watch them dying, or worse, continuing to live in a hospital’s geriatric extended-care floor, with other patients who suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s. And you definitely don’t want to see those old people using the chairs as toilets, or screaming at the nurses in a foreign language, or hooking up right there in the lounge, in full view of the hospital’s horrified staff.

You don’t want to watch these things because you probably think they’re sad. But on HBO’s new comedy, Getting On, which premieres Sunday, November 24 at 10pm, they’re actually pretty funny, too.

Written by Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer (Big Love), with a phenomenal cast that includes Laurie Metcalf as the research-obsessed Dr. Jenna James, Alex Borstein as her anxious, people-pleaser nurse, Dawn, and the surprisingly great Niecy Nash as new recruit Didi, Getting On is much wittier than its dreary premise suggests. When it begins, the staff has just discovered that one of the patients has, er… left a little present for them. “There’s a turd on a chair in the lounge,” Didi says, matter-of-factly, volunteering to grab some rubber gloves and flush it. Dawn quickly corrects her. “It’s feces, not a turd,” she says, explaining that they must tag and bag it, then fill out the proper paperwork. But Dr. James objects: she wants to save this particular specimen for her study on fecal matter. They keep arguing while the feces-turd just sits there, waiting to gross out some innocent bystander.

This might be the most highbrow poop joke ever, one that perfectly illustrates the problems with America’s health care system (too much red tape getting in the way of practical care). But there’s also a much simpler punchline here. Clearly, these people can’t clean up the crap because all of them are full of it.

The absurd logic of bureaucracy gives Getting On its biggest laughs. The nurses are told that they must commit to “a customer-centric service model with data-driven metrics,” when that obviously just means “a hospital that caters to patients and calculates number-y stuff.” One of the best scenes finds Dawn and Didi dealing with an Asian patient who’s just been dragged in off the street, ranting in a language they don’t understand. The Chinese interpreter can’t come into the hospital, so the patient screams in her foreign tongue at Dawn, who tries (and fails) to repeat the patient’s exact words for Didi, who tries (and fails) to repeat Dawn’s exact words to the interpreter. (His response? “That doesn’t mean anything.”) It takes them forever to realize that the patient is Cambodian, not Chinese. Another scene finds an elderly couple making out in the waiting area, causing some condescending members of the staff to debate their “sexual bill of rights.” Eventually, the couple’s adult sons are forced to sign release forms that allow their parents to get frisky.

If that sounds degrading, well, that’s how getting old sometimes feels, and it’s not often that comedies acknowledge it. Lately, dramas have devoted more attention to aging, mostly in film, with tearjerkers like Amour and Away From Her putting the zoom lens on the final stage of life. But Hollywood comedies are usually way more upbeat, full of grumpy old men with bucket lists, or feisty retirees who still get hungover in Vegas. Television is starting to catch up, with Betty White and her ridiculously upbeat friends turning TV Land into a Mecca for anyone who has a pension. Still, when it comes to actual jokes about the body parts that fail you, we fall way behind the British, who spend their lives repressing unpleasant feelings just to laugh at them on TV. (Just kidding! Not really kidding.)

Ricky Gervais’ took us inside a nursing home earlier this year, with Netflix’s somewhat depressing but totally sincere comedy, Derek, and Getting On was adapted from a U.K. drama of the same name. Both series feel somewhat revolutionary, especially at a time when most advertisers still think they should be catering to that coveted 18-49 demographic, and the only network roles left for actors over 39 are on Dancing With the Stars. There’s actually much wider appeal for Getting On and Derek, because they don’t just focus on the trials of the old and infirm. They also follow younger characters’ cringe-worthy attempts to deal with aging and death—and they force the rest of us to face those subjects, too.

Let’s be honest: there’s often a big gap between how we think we should feel about death, and how we actually feel about it. Most films and TV shows focus on one or the other, either trafficking in feel-good stories about living life to its fullest, or lecturing us about the grim realities that come with being mortal. In reality, we’re always trying to square one impulse with the other, and that’s where you find the best comedy, too.

My favorite scene in Getting On finds Dawn planning to honor a patient’s death, but failing to go through with it. A woman has left a birthday cake for her sister, unaware that the patient in question has already passed away, and the frosted dessert is just sitting there, looking delicious. Dawn and Didi discuss whether they should eat it. Would that be wrong? What if the sister arrives and wants the cake back? Then again, what woman in her right mind would want to eat her dead sister’s cake? Dawn finally caves, shoveling chocolate into her mouth, just as the cake-baker enters the room. She’s about to hear the terrible news from someone with crumbs still fresh in her mouth. It’s an awful moment—and yet, who can blame Dawn? Life might be wasted on the living, but cake never is.

Something tells me that shows like Getting On are the way of the future. Some networks are already changing their thinking about targeting their programming at younger viewers. Talking to the L.A. Times earlier this year, CBS Chief Research Officer David Poltrack noted that the percentage of adults in that prized 18-49 demographic has fallen from 62% to 55% over the last decade, and it will continue to decline, because heavier-viewing 49-year-olds are moving into another demographic and younger viewers typically watch less television. As audiences start aging, maybe they’ll finally start seeing more faces like their own on screen. Then we won’t have to feel bad about laughing at old people. Because we’ll be the old people, laughing at ourselves.

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