As of late, HBO’s “comedy of awkwardness” format has been giving way to the “comedy of exhaustion”—mixed in with a little bit of the “comedy of despair.” Veep is the highest-profile example of this: a sitcom about governance that, episode after episode, demonstrates politics is a brutal business, conducted by beaten-down cynics who ultimately accomplish nothing. The first season of Getting On isn’t as vicious as Veep, but Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer’s American adaptation of a BBC Four series does explore what it’s like to suit up every day and go to work under a cloud of futility. The men and women (mostly women) of Mt. Palms Hospital’s extended-care unit fight bureaucracy, faulty equipment, and the limits of modern medicine, which can’t do much more than momentarily stave off mortality for their geriatric patients. Yet Getting On isn’t completely bleak, because the characters have hope—or at least have have deluded themselves into feeling useful.
Getting On’s first season got better as it went along, once it established the setting and the personnel well enough to play off of both. Judging by its first three episodes, the second season is going to follow the same pattern. Getting On comes back in a mode so low-key that the show feels inconsequential, setting up a season of diminishing returns. But by the third episode, things really start to click again.
The core cast returns for season two: Alex Borstein as Dawn, the ward’s emotionally unstable head nurse; Mel Rodriguez as Patsy, the possibly gay, definitely officious supervisor who inadvertently toys with Dawn’s affections; Laurie Metcalf as Dr. James, a shrill, ambitious academic who uses her patients as subjects for research papers; and Niecy Nash as Didi, who works hard to make enough money to take care of her family, whom none of her coworkers ever bother to ask her about. As the second season begins, Patsy is still trying to impose standards of efficiency and cleanliness on a staff that’s mostly running from crisis to crisis, and Dawn is still trying to tie Patsy down, by suggesting that they move in together.
Dr. James, though, is adjusting to a new reality. Her boss shuts down her study of shrinking perineum in the elderly after complaints that she’s making patients uncomfortable with her close-up photos of their genitalia and anuses. In search of a fresh source of funding, Dr. James exploits a loophole in health insurance plans, conspiring with a hospice-care organization to reclassify terminal patients as “hospice patients,” so that she can bill their insurance at a higher rate. In episode two, the arrangement gains the ward an “11th hour volunteer,” played by Alia Shawkat (who isn’t given much to do in her first episodes, but looks to play more of a role in the season’s second half).
Season two’s first two episodes—“No Such Thing As Idealized Genitalia” and “Is Soap A Hazardous Substance?”—mainly just reestablish Getting On’s milieu, and neither offers much in the way of a plot. They’re both at their best (and funniest) when they get into the specifics of these characters’ work lives: when Dawn snaps at Didi for dominating a dying patient’s final minutes of life with spiritual questions, or when Dr. James asks Dawn to leap around in the women’s bathroom to keep the motion-sensitive lights from turning off while she’s peeing. Getting On has always captured with painful accuracy how work relationships take the rough form of friendship, but are constantly upended by little power plays. And it’s not just the coworkers who coexist uneasily in Getting On. The show is also very sharp about the awkward interactions of doctors and nurses with their patients, who get treated like children even if they used to be brilliant, respected scientists and writers.
In the third episode, “Turnips… North Day… Yes, Yes,” Olsen and Scheffer’s firm grasp on Mt. Palms’ dynamic intersects with an actual story, as the hospital’s computer network goes down at the same time Dawn is dealing with a possibly life-changing health issue. The episode ranges from the wacky (as Dawn and Dr. James rely on faulty wi-fi and a hard-to-understand Skyped-in interpreter to relay instructions to a deaf patient) to the touching (as Dawn deals with her stress by closing the episode with an impassioned, impromptu cello recital). This is what Getting On did so well in its first season: finding small, human moments in the middle of all the darkly comic misery.
In its second season, Getting On still gets a lot of comic mileage out of a stuck-in-her-own-head Dr. James chattering away about how she needs someone who can really “sink his teeth into vaginal atrophy.” But what makes the show more than just a miserablist slog is that while the doomed patients and their caretakers alike are mostly just trying to make it through another day, occasionally one of them will plead, “Just hold my fucking hand,” and everyone’s real mission becomes a lot clearer and simpler.