HBO has never been afraid to put on comedy series that aren’t predictable (Enlightened) or push the boundaries of one character’s likability (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Eastbound & Down). You could even say that HBO will put almost anything on as a comedy and hope that it will work.
But the channel doesn’t own a lot of blockbusters in the comedy genre. Curb has always been excellent, but there’s no timetable for its return. Eastbound & Down is retiring. Veep and Girls are by far HBO’s best offerings. If it can be said that HBO is willing to take a swing at just about anything, it should be noted that making contact at a better percentage would also be nice.
Its two latest offerings, premiering Sunday, are unlikely to help. Getting On is mostly a depressing and unfunny (which is more depressing) look at an eldercare facility, the people winding down their days ignominiously in said facility and a handful of people who work there. Based on the British series of the same name (which never aired in the U.S.), Getting On at once attempts to be an office comedy and at the same time a bleak look at what it means to be old and stuck in a mostly uncaring institution. Having watched the first three episodes (of only a six-episode season), Getting On — adapted by Big Love creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer — never manages to nail what is very clearly a difficult tone to pull off. The comedy isn’t particularly funny and the depressing nature of lives stalled out in eldercare purgatory makes the episodes drag out in a tediously slow fashion.
Alex Borstein (Family Guy, MadTV), plays Dawn, a longtime nurse in the field and one who fluctuates between understanding for and flimsy tolerance of the patients and of her lot at the facility. She’s bringing along Didi (Niecy Nash, Reno 911!), a newer nurse and the one presence on the show who seems real and thus is someone you’d actually want to follow. Didi is also a very sweet nurse and that attribute is a fine counterbalance to the underlying sadness that’s all around her. If Getting On has one strand that I’d be willing to follow, it’s finding out how long Didi can go in such a situation without turning colder or simply not being able to take it emotionally.
Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne, Toy Story, etc.) is Dr. Jenna James, whose disdain for the eldercare facility (the lowest part of the hospital totem pole) comes back to haunt her when a spat at the hospital finds her punished by getting sent back to oversee the eldercare group. We are meant to see in Dr. James the uncaring end of medicine as it pertains to the forgotten elderly, but Getting On doesn’t even attempt to weave in the American health care situation in any meaningful way. Dr. James is just an odd bird who collects feces for a study she’s hoping will make her seem more important (and the whole first-episode attempt at making elderly incontinence funny falls flat).
Mel Rodriguez (Enlisted, Community) joins the show in the second episode as the head nurse but quickly becomes another character that finds conflict almost immediately (none of the characters are given much chance to become fleshed out) and someone else it’s hard to care about.
Undoubtedly some people will think that Getting On is heroic or cutting-edge for taking on the subject matter. But the fact is, at least in the American version, there’s not only a lack of humor to the show that fails to offset its bleakness, but there’s nothing in the bleakness that is making a larger point. You can see what Getting On was trying to get at, but mostly you just see it failing to get there.
As opposed to Getting On, Chris Lilley has never had any problems manufacturing humor. HBO tapped his Australian series, Summer Heights High and Angry Boys, which both wonderfully showcased the Australian series creator, writer and star for an American audience. Lilley, who plays a bevy of disparate characters in his series — like a manically creative kid putting on an entire show for the world — returns this time with Ja’mie: Private School Girl, which takes his snotty, spoiled, mean and foul-mouthed character and gives her starring status and loads more screen time.
That’s the problem.
Ja’mie is funnier in short, searing scenes. She was surrounded in Summer Heights High with tons of other great Lilley creations and popped from the screen when given the chance to be, well, rich and bitchy. But centering one of Lilley’s most annoying characters in a series to ramble on incessantly robs the character of its past effectiveness and makes her — and the series — almost unbearable to watch. In this series, Ja’mie is back from her brief stay among the great unwashed and returned to the final year of queen bee status at upper crust Hillford Girls Grammar in Sydney, where she’s surrounded herself with sycophants and sets out to torment everyone else while drowning in her own shallowness.
Maybe a good idea on paper, but not in execution. You’d have to be the biggest of Ja’mie fans to want to watch her talking nonstop for 30 minutes. That’s not to say Ja’mie: Private School Girl is devoid of laughs. Of course not. Lilley is too good at what he does to not find the funny. But it worked so much more effectively when he spread himself around to disparate characters. While Ja’mie skewers the predictable targets in this new series, it’s just too, too much to endure her without a break.