When it comes to shows about aging, it’s a shame — or perhaps a blessing — that our highest in high-tech TVs still cannot transmit odor. On the new HBO docu-comedy “Getting On,” set in the dreary extended-care unit of a hospital in Long Beach, Calif., viewers are spared some authenticity: the smell of feces left on an armchair, the stench of an unwashed homeless patient wearing layers of old coats.
“Getting On” is an unglamorous, deadpan series shot in muted Instagram tones, featuring middle-aged and elderly actresses without makeup. (It passes the Bechdel test with flying colors.) Through six first-season episodes, the last of which airs Sunday, it has proved to be a medical drama free of the genre’s tropes — constant emergencies, surgical miracles, high-tech equipment and break-room sex — that instead puts the labor of caretaking front and center.
As Americans debate Obamacare and aging baby boomers plan their twilight years, the show highlights an essential labor force and a senior demographic mostly absent from primetime TV. It simultaneously critiques medical bureaucracy, the high cost of American health care, union dispute-resolution and the callousness of patients’ grown children (one played by a petulant Molly Shannon). It is funny and painful, often at the same time.
The show stars Alex Borstein (of “Family Guy” fame) as Dawn Forchette, an insecure and occasionally ineffective nurse who tries hard to do right by her patients. Nurse Dawn supervises nurse DiDi Ortley (Niecy Nash from “Reno 911!”), who is less experienced but more capable and naturally empathetic.
The women report to their mostly inept superiors: Jenna James, a neurotic, ambitious doctor (Laurie Metcalf from “Roseanne”), and head nurse Patsy De La Serda (Mel Rodriguez from “Community”), who busies himself with consumer-satisfaction surveys, decorations and happy slogans instead of patient care.
Mike Smith, a real-life Nurse DiDi, has worked at a California extended-care facility for about three years. (Unlike on the TV show, most “LTACs,” for “long term acute care,” are separate from general hospitals.) During hectic 12-hour shifts, Smith — who asked that his name be changed in this story for fear of losing his job — tends to patients, instructs family members on end-of-life decision-making, covers for other nurses and navigates the red tape of Medicare and private insurance.
“I thought (the job) was going to be, ‘Hey, Mrs. Jones, do you want some ice chips?’ but it’s a lot of poop and death,” Smith said. “Quite a few of the patients are elderly and have multiple, heavy-duty problems. For many people, it’s their last stop.” Elders at a neighboring retirement home call his workplace “heaven’s waiting room,” he said.
The emotional and physical labor of LTACs is relentless, as depicted in episode four of “Getting On,” when Nurse DiDi works the night shift all alone. And yet, “Generally, these extended-cares pay very poorly,” said Margie Keenan, 64, secretary of the California Nurses Association. “I don’t know if our society really values our seniors,” and the same goes for their caretakers, she said.
On the show, Nurses DiDi and Dawn belong to a union, but this is still rare for extended-care and nursing-home employees, whose wages and benefits are, on average, much lower than those of comparable hospital workers. Several weeks ago, Kindred Hospital Westminster, in Westminster, Calif., became the first regional LTAC to join the California Nurses Association, by an overwhelming vote.
Keenan, a fan of “Getting On,” sees the show as very realistic, despite its slapstick moments. The bonding between nurses and patients, hospitals’ “dumping” patients on clinics and long-term facilities, the pressure to discharge them as soon as possible, understaffing, superficially cheery messaging and occupational hazards like exhaustion and heavy lifting — they are all a daily reality, she said.