The Sick and the Tired




This Week on Dear Television:

1) “The Sick and the Tired,” from Evan Kindley

2) “Giving a Shit,” from Lili Loofbourow
 

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The Sick and the Tired
By Evan Kindley
November 14, 2014

gettingon
Dear Television (cc: Lili), 

AMERICANS LOVE to watch television shows about people with high-pressure jobs. From dramas (Scandal, Homeland, How to Get Away with Murder) to sitcoms (Veep, The Mindy Project, Brooklyn Nine Nine) to procedurals (all the motley Law & Orders and CSIs of the world), high-octane work environments are one of the few constants across the TV spectrum. To some extent this has always been true — there have been cop, doctor, and lawyer shows since the inception of the medium. But these were often soaps or melodramas at their core, whereas today’s workplace shows get an essential part of their dramatic charge from their depiction of actual work.

I was never able to get into The West Wing for exactly this reason: the constant stream of walk-and-talk Steadicam sequences intercut with tense but banter-filled meetings and every week a new emergency just made me feel tired and stressed out myself. (I do kind of enjoy The Newsroom, which most Sorkin fans consider vastly inferior, but that’s partly because of its camp value.) I often wondered whether people who loved this show were people with high-pressure jobs themselves, who could relate, or whether there was an element of aspiration here: did people want their lives to be this consumed with work?

Unfortunately for me, Aaron Sorkin’s show has arguably been the most influential workplace series of the past two decades. Granted, there’s been some counterprogramming: The Office and Parks & Recreation, for instance, in which the pace is pretty slow and barely any actual work seems to get done. But supercharged, high-stress work environments are the rule in American television, across genres and markets. Furthermore, what I’ll call the Sorkin Principle — the idea that high-stress work environments bring out the best in people, inspiring them to ever higher heights of moral courage and wit — is endemic. The fact that, police excepted, all of the jobs depicted on these shows fall squarely into the category of white-collar work only reinforces my general suspicion that this is entertainment aimed at elites and elite wannabes. (Call it, with apologies to Max Weber, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Binge-watching.”)

For a very different view of work, I recommend Getting On, HBO’s sitcom set in a women’s geriatric ward at a Southern California hospital, which premiered in late 2013. One of the things I like so much about Getting On is that it shows what constant stress really does to people. It wears them down. It impairs their judgment. It induces them to make terrible, actionable jokes. Contra Sorkin, stress rarely brings out the best in people; on a good day, it only fails to trigger the worst.

Some of this is expressed in the writing (by creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, formerly of HBO’s Big Love), but it’s also put across visually. The actors in Getting On wear close to no makeup, and the show is shot very naturalistically — which is to say, it looks like we’re in a geriatric hospital. Thus we get to see worry-lines, pimples, blemishes, eye-bags, loose skin: everything that’s usually obscured by cosmetics and flattering lighting. Whatever insults to personal vanity might result from this shooting style are offset by huge gains in expression and immediacy; the acting on Getting On is some of the most intimate and affecting I’ve ever seen on television. Laurie Metcalf, in particular, is sensational as Dr. Jenna James, a high-strung, deeply unhappy woman struggling to hold on to an ethic of hyper-professionalism in the face of daily indignity. The twitchy, birdlike way she bobs her head communicates more emotional pain than a hundred Oscar clip soliloquies.

The work depicted in Getting On is about as unglamorous as it gets. Caring for elderly women, perhaps society’s least valued individuals, is, the show makes clear, an exhausting and difficult and often disgusting job. In the first episode of season 1, a patient leaves a “fecal deposit” on a chair; in the fourth, a homeless woman is “dumped” on the ward by another hospital and the nurses must remove her makeshift newspaper diaper. Caring for the old and sick is, as more or less anyone would admit, a noble profession, but the nurses on the show aren’t saints: they are often inattentive and irresponsible, and just about every episode features one character or another having a nervous breakdown. In its refusal to pretend that the people who do the toughest and least respected jobs in our society are perfect or selfless, the show is both honest and quietly radical. There need to be more like it.

Getting On returned for a second season on Sunday night, following the much-heralded return of Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback. The episode wasn’t one of the show’s funniest: the plot called for Alex Borstein’s Dawn Forchette, who is often the comic engine, to be restrained and passive until a late explosion, and while there were two great slapstick sequences (one involving motion-sensor bathroom lights, the other involving an adjustable bed), it hewed closer to social realism than comedy. But all of the elements that make the show special are still there: the extraordinary cinematography; Niecy Nash’s nuanced, heartbreaking performance as nurse Didi Ortley, which grounds the show; and, above all, the unsentimental but often deeply moving depictions of aging. The final scene (ingeniously juxtaposed with the end credits) appears to be setting up a season-long arc that will take Getting On into even darker, more satirical territory. 

It’s interesting to compare Getting On to The Knick, Steven Soderbergh’s period hospital drama, which has some similarly naturalistic touches but where the Sorkin Principle mostly holds (though it does suggest that on-the-job excellence needs to be lubricated by frequent injections of liquid cocaine). Orange is the New Black is another reasonable reference point, given both shows’ majority female casts and mixture of subtle characterization with broad scatological humor. But the best point of comparison is probably the original, British version of The Office, still the greatest workplace show ever made, and the obvious model for what the show is up to. (Getting On is itself based on an acclaimed British series, which I haven’t seen.) For my money, Metcalf’s Dr. James almost matches Ricky Gervais’s David Brent as a repulsive yet somehow sympathetic boss; part of me hopes that, in season two, she takes the crown.

But what do you think, Lili? Are you as impressed with Getting On as I am? And what do you want to see from the rest of season 2?

Building an “Attagirl” file,

Evan

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Giving a Shit
By Lili Loofbourow
November 14, 2014

Dear Evan (and Dear TV),

THE PILOT OF ONE of the best shows on TV right now — arguably one of the best medical shows of all time — is constructed around the three main characters fighting over a (literal) piece of shit. That’s worth saying up front, and if that’s not the perfect metaphor for how thoroughly Getting On bursts the soapy bubble of self-seriousness that sometimes infects medical TV, I don’t know what is.

Evan compared Getting On to the breakneck, high-pressure pace of other workplace dramas. That’s a crucial comparison, and I want to work back to it, but I first want to register how radically that turd-focused pilot messes with Medical TV’s sometimes lazy reliance on its built-in stakes. If people are sick and dying, you’re never short on tension and spectacle. Not so in Getting On, which begins with a death so disappointingly undramatic that everyone misses it. The pilot starts with a nurse, Alex Borstein’s Dawn Forchette, chuckling at something on her iPhone while she holds a patient’s hand. It’s kind of a sweet scene; that she’s unnecessarily touching the patient shows that she cares, even though she’s also playing on her phone. Dawn’s attitude is incredibly human, but it basically encapsulates the excess a well-run hospital tries to eradicate: too much care in some ways, too little in others. Anyway, that scene ends with Borstein realizing the patient, whose birthday cake proclaims this her 87th birthday, has died. Before she’s had a chance to take stock, the new nurse (Niecy Nash’s Didi Ortley) interrupts to report that a lone turd — the turd — has appeared on a chair in the ward, and what should she do about it.

That Didi’s question turns out to have no correct answer is what makes Getting On really brilliant. We learn the hospital nearly lost its license because of C. diff, but Laurie Metcalf’s Dr. Jenna James won’t let the nurses clean the feces because she wants the specimen for her study and it needs to be collected by the lab. The conflict between Jenna and nurses Didi and Dawn over the turd takes center stage, and we, like them, forget about the dead woman in the next room. In a way that’s just so true to life — and far more realistic than House or ER or Grey’s Anatomy — excrement interrupts the drama of death. In a hospital, you don’t get to stop and reflect. You don’t get to mourn. You just have to keep going. Someone just died, but someone else wants some water and someone needs to go to the bathroom. You try to maintain a sense of decorum, but this — as anyone who’s worked in a hospital knows — can manifest in really weird ways. “Feces, not turd,” Alex Borstein’s Dawn Forchette says to Didi (our protagonist and the show’s straight woman) correcting her terminology. Didi offers again to clean up, but here again, there are issues anyone who’s worked in a hospital (or bureaucracy) will recognize: there needs to be an incident report. Didi — using the intelligence and common sense that serves her poorly throughout the series — writes and submits her incident report: “Found a feces on a chair.”

“No, no,” Dawn says. “Uh, the incident reports need to be really, really specific.”

“Okay, what else should I put?”

“Well, for starters, it’s not a feces. It’s just feces.”

“But, I mean, it wasn’t a gang of them, it was just one piece.”

“Yeah, but there’s no singular form.”

“Who found it?”

“Me. It says my name right there.”

Watching wonderful, wise, patient, efficient Didi be indoctrinated into the byzantine world of Mount Palms could so easily become Getting On’s central tragedy. Wouldn’t it be great TV to watch her lovely spirit crushed? But here, too, the show is a weird rebel for the really interesting reason that … drumroll please …  

It absolutely refuses to be tragic.

Unusual, for such a grim setup. There truly is no acceptable solution to the poop on the chair: everyone gets yelled at for doing the wrong thing. The head nurse who puts Dr. James in her place and makes the right call ends up banished from the ward. There are few landmark victories in geriatrics, few moments of rescue and triumph. On the other hand, there’s a constant stream of criticism and blame, another stream of bedpans and hostile, uncooperative patients you’re not allowed to touch because it’s assault — and virtually no praise. Dawn holding the patient’s hand in the opening becomes, retroactively, an act of quiet resistance. She never stops caring, and neither does Didi.

We’ve had satires of horrible systems before — Office Space is one, so is Enlightened — but those contain fantasies of rebellion. They work because they’re victimless; there’s a scrappy heroism to challenging the machine. Even The BBC Office succumbs to this in the Christmas Special. Not so in Getting On, where there are people trapped inside the machine, sometimes literally, as in the season 2 premiere where a woman with congestive heart failure nearly gets squashed by a malfunctioning high-tech hospital bed. You can kick a printer to death if you’re an office drone, but raging against the machine is a luxury you do not have when you’re surrounded by fragile people who depend on you. This extends to the nurses’ home life, which we don’t get to see but which we glimpse in moments of distress. Halfway through season 1, we learn that Didi has had to take in her sister’s four children as well her own. Dawn is moonlighting for an agency at night after being conned by her ex-husband. These are people struggling for basic survival, and it’s a testament to what Getting On is doing and how well it’s doing it that they never once collapse into the philosophical bouts of self-pity and cynicism that have become de rigueur for the Don Drapers and Tony Sopranos and McNultys and Houses of the televisual landscape.

To review, Getting On has:

–No self-pitying heroes reveling in their damage.

–No protagonists sacrificing their loved ones to their professional lives.

–No wry meditations on life and death.

–No saintly patients teaching us how to live.

–No tense scenes where we’re waiting to see a treatment work.

–No difficult diagnoses.

–No geniuses.

–No Dr. Coxes, or redemptive storylines that make it all okay.

WHAT THEN IS THIS SHOW ABOUT? Given that Getting On skips so many familiar sources of dramatic tension, why is it worth watching?

I’m thrilled Evan talked about Aaron Sorkin and the Gervais connection; it wouldn’t have occurred to me to compare Getting On with the BBC version of The Office, but when I read it, it clicked. YES. The washed-out colors of the hospital ward, the grim, decoration-proof walls, the supremacy of plastic — Getting On does for the medical profession — and that sickly beige color — what The Office did for grays and workplace ennui. (Evan’s comparison has a funny afterlife: One of my favorite factoids about this show is that some early reviews compared it unfavorably to Gervais’s Derek because the latter “actually delivered poignant moments pertaining to its elderly charges,” whereas Getting On is “more apt to portray them as foul-mouthed bigots and horny grannies.” (Who could have imagined, when The Office first aired, that a creation of Gervais’s would someday be called the cuddly option?)

Getting On’s strength is precisely that it refuses to cater to our expectations for medical shows: poignancy and/or heroics. The title says it all: this is not about saints and heroes, it’s about muddling through and making it work. Caretakers aren’t lifesavers, nor are they always saintly (though Niecy Nash’s Didi sometimes comes close). Caring for the elderly and dying is grueling and dull, often challenging, frequently dangerous, sometimes disgusting, and quite moving because of all that, not in spite of it. Criminy, when did we decide to demand poignancy of our old people? It’s a sanitizing impulse, every bit as sterile as a hospital ward should be — but isn’t. It especially isn’t in Getting On, thanks to Dawn Forchette’s messy humanity, the ever-present threat of C. diff, and the turd, to which everything returns. That turd is important, and so is Bertie, who sits across from it, denying that it’s hers. Our fear of dying and tendency to shuttle old people to rest homes has created a strange vacuum in our cultural understanding of old age. Getting On maintains in its dim hushed way that old people, especially old people feeling helpless and in pain, are unlikely to be saintly. Despite their many faults, both nurses take this as a given: old people remain very much themselves — and many, thanks to the ways dementia erodes inhibitions and impulse control, enter the medical system as worse, ragged, confused. But Getting On isn’t about old people. It’s both broader and more intimate than that. If Evan’s Sorkin Principle says everyone does their best work when they’re stressed, Getting On is a virtual anthropology of what stress does to people — nurses, doctors and patients — in the long-term.

We’ve been drowning in exquisite ensemble shows lately — Orange is the New Black, Getting On, now Transparent — and I’ve been thinking about what makes an ensemble truly great. Great ensemble shows have this symphonic quality that you don’t know until you see it. They produce a tone, a sort of ambient harmonic, that isn’t just visual or aesthetic, it’s emotional. I know we’re all fetishizing authenticity these days, but man, I’m gonna say it: Getting On feels authentic. I don’t mean realistic or realist; Arrested Development had this quality too, and that was as bright and orange a fantasy of a world as Getting On’s is washed-out and drab. There’s something intimate and inevitable about a great ensemble; it’s an unfakeable kind of collaborative chemistry, and it makes a universe come organically alive with a richness we just don’t see much. A great ensemble accomplishes what millions of dollars on expensive sets and costumes can’t — Downton Abbey, for all its beauty, never pulled off this kind of cohesion. The acting, as Evan says and I repeat, is just so good — Niecy Nash doesn’t just hold her own opposite mega-talents Laurie Metcalf and Alex Borstein; her Didi Ortley is one of the gentlest, most quietly charismatic characters on TV.

Despite broad set-pieces like the fountain, and incredibly obvious jokes like the turd, the actors are working at a very fine grain, and they really show — in a way I haven’t seen before — how weird social realities become in a medical setting. Getting On isn’t quite a satire, and it isn’t exactly a comedy, but it really nails the impossible emotional distance caregivers and patients travel on a daily basis — and how frequently they fail. Despite one awful patient’s racism and bigotry, it’s really distressing when she can’t go smoke or go to the cafeteria to have lunch; that scene drives home just how trapped and infantilized geriatric patients must feel. In another scene that same patient refuses to have her blood pressure taken, and we understand — through Didi’s eyes — how stymied she is, and how genuinely baffling and infuriating trying to take care of people can be. The borders of acceptable human interactions are so warped: you can’t touch an uncooperative patient, but measuring perineums with calipers and photographing them is okay. Consensual sex between two patients, on the other hand, is not. This is a world where it’s not clear what you should do with the birthday cake of your dead patient, where you have to ask two men to legally consent to their mother giving blow jobs.

Laurie Metcalf’s Jenna is a study in accidental callousness. She tells a disoriented patient they removed a “tarantula-sized tumor.” Informed that the elderly patient she’s treating is recovering from a knee surgery hopes to a run a marathon in two months, Jenna’s immediate response is competitive: I’m a runner too, she tells the patient, a glint in her eye. I can’t get over Metcalf’s acting during these scenes! “There is a new gold standard for stool charts!” she announces triumphantly. We can’t hate Jenna because she so effectively conveys both Jenna’s competitiveness and her belated but sincere desire to be performatively kind (which nearly always fails). Then there’s Didi, whose social graces turn out to be her downfall. Far and away the best at dealing with the racist, homophobic patient, Didi’s strategy is to patiently concede: “yeah, they like to keep us fat coon dykes really busy,” she murmurs quietly as she takes the furious patient’s blood pressure. Didi’s habit of quoting the insults she gets so as to defuse them nearly costs her a job when she tries to use that same strategy to bond with her head nurse, Patsy De La Cerda. She checks on him to see whether he’s okay after Varla called him a “big, fat, fairy.” “I was hoping for a better resolution,” Patsy says, speaking bureaucratese. “I think you did just fine, for a big fat fairy,” Didi says. Patsy reports her. No truces last in Getting On; alliances are in constant collapse, but no one gives up. Didi will not be defeated by this. She’ll keep going.

“It’s about life and how you handle it, isn’t it?” Jenna says to Didi during a particularly difficult night, when they very briefly bond. Jenna is out of her work clothes, and that softens her; she’s less performative, less thinly stretched, and we get a glimpse of who she hoped to be: “Every day we see a parade of life choices passing before us and early on I thought I will be cheerful and happy, and by being cheerful and happy and of greatest service to others, I will be a pleasure to all and a bother to none.”

“My mother’s a drunk,” Didi says.

“So was my father,” says Jenna. Then they get back to work.

I love this show, you guys. Love it more than Jenna loves that turd on the chair.

We must become interdepartmental pods,

Lili

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