It’s hard to watch Season Two of Getting On without thinking about The Office. The parallels are obvious. Both are British imports from namesake series, and both, at least in the early going, inherited an understated, gloomy brand of humor from their sardonic predecessors. Yet the most vital link is what both series represent for the future of the American sitcom.
HBO’s darkly comic series that follows under-appreciated nurses Dawn (Alex Borstein) and Didi (Niecy Nash) and a manic, hyper-agitated Dr. Jenna James (Laurie Metcalf) as they care for the elderly female patients of the Billy Barnes Extended Care Unit in Long Beach is set to begin its second season Nov. 9. Yet despite a unanimously glowing critical reception for the show’s first season, popular buzz around its return has been all but nonexistent.
And that’s a shame because the show might just have what it takes to make an important, lasting contribution to how we watch television. The kind of impact that The Office once made… almost.
When The Office ended its nine-season run it was no secret that, like many of the all-time greats, it had died a thousand excruciating, unfunny deaths long before the Robert California tornado touched down, obliterating all in its path. As many pointed out at the time, the show’s regression could be traced in part to the moment pining everyman Jim Halpert finally won Pam Beasley’s heart, but the real, more sinister culprit here was the slow seeping-in of American sitcom cheeriness.
What made this show’s arrival in 2005 so momentous — even more than the single camera format, the confessionals, and the full-fledged arrival of Steve Carell — was the way it found humor, joy, and love in an otherwise grimly realistic portrait of small-town America. But once the garish sheen of traditional American sitcoms found its way into the Dunder Mifflin universe, and Jim and Pam were allowed to glimpse a life beyond the perfectly-wrought bleakness of a 21st century paper company, a vital pressure-valve of dramatic tension was released. And where there’s no tension, of course, there’s no comic relief.
Luckily, given the creative freedom provided by its HBO parent, Getting On seems poised to avoid such a fate. In fact, Season Two will go darker, perhaps even surpassing its British forerunner. If you didn’t think an extended care unit could get any more dismal, creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer have found a way. Dr. James, Ahab-like in her pursuit of research funds, sells her soul to a bottom-line minded hospice group that transforms the Billy Barnes wing into a veritable conveyor belt of women on their deathbeds. Dawn, meanwhile, still desperately clinging to hopes that she and her possibly gay (definitely gay) love interest Patsy De La Serda (a delightfully squirmy Mel Rodriguez) can make it work, suffers a heart-wrenching personal loss in her pursuit.
Yet the humor, of course, remains. Laurie Metcalf continues to turn in an honest-to-God jaw-dropping comedic performance every episode. To watch her, by some miracle of acting fortitude, announce the “obvious commercial implications” of vaginal atrophy studies with a reverence worthy of an Atticus Finch speech is to watch a master at work. Alex Borstein, best known as the voice of Lois on The Family Guy, further proves that she is poised to establish herself as an irresistible talent. If the sight of her drunkenly tumbling into a fountain in Season One didn’t convince you, Season Two confirms the woman is a genius of physical comedy. Amidst all this madness, Niecy Nash returns to provide the same brand of full-hearted compassion that defines her character and serves as the show’s much-needed moral center.
And as if this female-dominated central cast wasn’t remarkable enough, Season Two once again provides a much-needed platform where hugely talented actresses over the age of 60 can shine. Tony-Award winner Betty Buckley offers a lively, tragic turn as an alcoholic professor tempting fate, Jean Smart sparkles as a single woman caring for her hated, demented mother-in-law, and Ann Morgan Guilbert, who got her start as sprightly neighbor Miller Helper on The Dick Van Dyke Show in 1961 (1961!) returns as the heartbreakingly adorable Birdy.
Despite all this, I will admit, the type of it’s-so-funny-I-can’t-stand-it moments that highlighted the show’s first season don’t quite surface in the early episodes of Season Two. But I also will admit that I don’t mind. Because no other comedy on television, with the important exception of FX’s Louie, achieves what Getting On achieves. It tackles big subjects like death, suffering, loneliness, and the warped state of American healthcare. It finds kindness and poignancy in a place populated by oblivious self-seekers. But it also creates a world where something called Vulva Quarterly exists, where a doctor is obsessed with the evolutionary shrinking of male perinea, and where people say things to each other like, “I’m basically saving her life with my butt.” It consistently unleashes a flood of varied emotions in the viewer that are as hard to keep up with as Laurie Metcalf’s facial expressions.
The Office was supposed to harken a wave of new possibilities for the situational comedy. Perhaps it was naïve to think such a transformation could happen on network television. What happened instead was that the series limped to its own finish line, dragging the entire NBC comedy brand with it. These days the Peacock is flailing at misguided attempts to re-produce CBS’ massively popular variety of frivolous comedy. Which has its own appeal, of course. There’s no shame in surrendering to that hypnotic Big Bang Theory laugh track every now and then (or every single minute of your life, if you’re watching TBS). But the truth is that there’s more than one way to use 22 minutes of airtime. And there’s obviously more than one way to do comedy. Comedy can be strange. It can be challenging. It can feature chronically under-represented populations. It can be an agent for change. And it can even be, at its most incongruous heights, sad.
This is how the sitcom, like the one-hour drama before it, enters the realm of high art. Getting On isn’t the only comedy on television that aspires to this. It just happens to be, at this moment, the best.
At one point in the second season, Dawn has Patsy cornered in the break-room. As she lays out her vision of their life together, inching closer and closer to him in her entreaty, she declares to him:
“We’re the future.”
Let’s hope so.
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