Review: HBO’s ‘Getting On’ an uneven comic look at eldercare

“Getting On” (Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO) is a dramedy about the nurses and doctors who staff the overwhelmed, underfunded, disrespected elder care unit of a California hospital. They take care of women who are old, infirm, and need help with even the most basic functions of life, like going to the bathroom and cleaning up after.

Okay, time for some honesty: based on that description, how many of you have instantly written off any chance of ever watching this show? And did anyone, anywhere, read that and rush to set the DVR season pass?

Now let me double down on that by telling you that of the show’s four main characters, only one comes across as instantly sympathetic, while the others run the gamut from neurotic to passive-aggressive to narcissistic.

How excited are you now?

I actually found myself warming to “Getting On” the more that I watched it, but it feels almost as if it was greenlit as a dare: HBO aiming for the narrowest possible niche it ever has with one of its scripted series. Compared to “Getting On,” something like “In Treatment” or “Enlightened” feels wildly populist and accessible.

By and large, I subscribe to the Roger Ebert philosophy that what a work of entertainment is about is less important than how it’s about it, but there are exceptions. My complete lack of interest in the British aristocracy, for instance, made “Downton Abbey” a chore for me even back when it was good. And given how much we as a society try not to talk or think about the plight of the elderly (not that we should be proud of this), a series about the people who do the job we want no part of is going to have a pretty high barrier for entry.

In adapting the critically-acclaimed British series of the same name, “Big Love” creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer have done themselves no favors in how they present our four guides to this world: nurses Dawn (Alex Borstein), Didi (Niecy Nash) and Patsy (Mel Rodriguez), plus supervising doctor Jenna (Laurie Metcalf). Didi, a newcomer to the floor and our point-of-view character, is sane, calm and as attentive to the patients as it’s possible to be given the demands of the job and the minimal staffing. The other three, though, are disasters of varying degrees. Dawn is a submissive, self-destructive addict to shopping, bad boyfriends and other vices. Patsy, the managing nurse, pushes through new rules and policies designed to make the floor run more like a Disney cruise ship and is wildly oversensitive to any criticism. Jenna wants no part of the position to which she’s been assigned, and spends most of each shift running extracurricular studies for drug companies and papers she can present at conferences.

These characters are all presented in the same kind of deadpan, buttoned-down fashion you might expect from the British “Office,” and the actors – all of them with resumes mostly filled with big, broad performances – do very well with this style. But an understated performance as a cartoonish character still leads to a cartoonish character, and everyone but Didi becomes so aggravating that, when you couple it with the subject matter, the early episodes of “Getting On” are tough to watch. There are some isolated moments that work as comedy (Dawn talks Didi through the procedure for disposing of feces found in the lounge) or as pathos (Dawn tells a dead patient’s loved one about the woman’s final moments), but not the experience as a whole.

But it gets better as it goes along, and you can tell that Olsen and Scheffer are enjoying working in such a small physical and emotional space after the sprawling craziness of their previous series. The third episode brings in Harry Dean Stanton from “Big Love” as a patient’s sexually active boyfriend, which leads to a lot of pointed discussion about what the staff will and won’t allow their patients to do, and how we infantilize our senior citizens after a point. Jenna goes on a trip in between the third and fourth episodes and returns as a much more nuanced, less ogre-ish character. And the fifth episode, with Didi calmly working the night shift while everyone around her has one meltdown after another, felt like a genuinely satisfying, entertaining take on this world and this material.

Now, I watched all five episodes HBO sent because I found enough interesting things in the early ones to keep going, but also because it’s my job. Will viewers without any kind of professional responsibility (or compensation) stick with it that long? And that’s just factoring in the people who will be watching in the first place.

I suspect HBO executives understand what they have on their hands, which is why “Getting On” is being dumped in late November and December; for most of its run, it’ll be airing after the final season of “Tremé,” a series that, while brilliant, comes with plenty of its own accessibility issues.

The later episodes of “Getting On” suggest a show I’d enjoy watching more of if HBO decides to make it another charity case like “Tremé” or “The Wire” or that second season of “Enlightened.” I just don’t know how many people will have the patience, or even the initial interest, to get to that point.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at