Most of the actors on the set of HBO’s newest program, “Getting On,” are over 70. The show, which airs at 10 p.m. Sundays, takes place in the Billy Barnes Extended Care Unit of the beleaguered Mount Palms hospital in Long Beach, Calif.
Elderly women are cared for under sallow fluorescent lights among sanitized hues of beige and muted pink. The staff is at the breaking point thanks to the burdens of the health care bureaucracy.
Doesn’t that sound funny?
If you take your comedy black, like your coffee, it’s a laugh riot. Created by Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, “Getting On” is adapted from a BBC series of the same name.
It features a cast of edgy female comedy vets including Laurie Metcalf (“Roseanne”), Alex Borstein (“Family Guy”) and Niecy Nash (“Reno 911!”).
Olsen and Scheffer are the team behind the HBO hit “Big Love,” which dealt with another taboo subject: polygamy. For a polygamy palate cleanser, the men chose aging, the elderly, death and dying. And HBO said, let’s do this.
The show is one of a trio of fall programs that have had the courage — or foolhardiness — to take on a topic that much of American culture famously avoids.
In addition to “Getting On,” dying also framed Showtime’s documentary series “Time of Death,” which unflinchingly chronicled the last days of its subjects, and Netflix’s scripted drama “Derek,” where the specter of death hovers over the residents of an old folks home.
It’s no accident these programs sprouted up on subscription TV services where niche shows can thrive and ratings matter less. But are viewers, many of them baby boomers who will all be 50 or older next year, ready to face their mortality?
“How do you deal with old people who are dying and deal with those themes, and then make an audience want to go there with you?” Scheffer asks. “If it’s really close to us, how do we heal? By laughing about it.”
Scheffer and Olsen hope that the viewing world will laugh with them. But historically speaking, when treated realistically, the end days of life is a ratings-killer.
“The closer you get to being elderly and / or dying, the less interesting you are for advertisers, except for sellers of walk-in bathtubs and the Neptune Society,” says Leo Braudy, a Bing professor of English and American literature at University of Southern Cailfornia.
“And why would people who will soon be in an extended-care ward want to watch other people in an extended-care ward?”
Olsen and Scheffer are both boomers and lost their mothers in the past two years. Both women were in boarding-care facilities, so the men are all too familiar with what it’s like.
The six-episode season was filmed in the deserted shell of St. Luke Medical Center in Pasadena, Calif. Empty, drafty and derelict, like the hospital version of “The Shining” hotel, St. Luke became the show’s nerve center.
“I think the potential is for trivializing the conditions, experiences and lives of the people and families that are cared for in chronic-care units,” said Lon S. Schneider, a professor of gerontology at USC’s Davis School of Gerontology. “And of possibly glamorizing and almost romanticizing the kind of jobs that the professionals at these places do.”
Olsen, Scheffer and the cast have given that pitfall serious thought. Before filming began, the lead actresses spent two weeks trailing staff in nursing homes and hospitals, and the writing does not shy away from the troubling aspects of the work.
“Getting On” airs at 10 p.m. Sundays on HBO.