Hank Stuever
Hank Stuever
Critic

‘Getting On’ and ‘Ja’mie: Private School Girl’: Funny because they’re painful

(Dale Robinette/ HBO ) - Alex Borstein and Niecy Nash in HBO’s “Getting On.”

(Dale Robinette/ HBO ) - Alex Borstein and Niecy Nash in HBO’s “Getting On.”

HBO’s funny/sad comedy “Getting On” (a six-episode series premiering Sunday night) is set in the extended-care unit of a hospital, right at the exact moment everyone’s dead tired of talking about health care.

This show is full of everything we fear about getting sick or old: there are lost forms, narcissistic doctors, suffering patients, intolerable waits, angry nurses; also airborne infections, vomit, death and internecine staff disputes carefully mediated by union reps and the HR department. Nobody wants to be there, least of all the elderly patients in various states of misery or confusion. Are you laughing yet?

Hank Stuever

Hank Stuever is The Washington Post’s TV critic and author of two books, “Tinsel” and “Off Ramp.”

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Weirdly enough, “Getting On” (adapted from the original BBC series) is a witheringly efficient work of satire, easily confident about the humanity and absurdity it’s trying to portray. Without any temptation of straying into slapstick or the hackneyed “mockumentary” format of the last decade or so, “Getting On” nevertheless manages to feel like a documentary about hospital inefficiency. It apparently doesn’t matter if your medicine is socialized or privatized — “Getting On” works just as well as an American show, even when the humor it brandishes is as mirthful as a colonoscopy.

Alex Borstein (the voice of “Family Guy’s” Lois Griffin) stars as Dawn Forchette, a minimally dedicated nurse who keeps getting dinged in evaluations for not keeping the unit clean enough, but makes up for it with honest compassion for patients. Dawn has food issues, dating issues, but seemingly worst of all she has oppressively demanding bosses, including Laurie Metcalf (“Roseanne”) as Dr. Jenna James, whose singular obsession is to publish her extensive research on stool samples.

Borstein and Metcalf both deliver smartly observed and deeply felt riffs on the same type of overworked, hurtfully neglected person, but the show’s comic and moral center rests with Niecy Nash (from Comedy Central’s “Reno 911!” and TLC’s “Clean House”), who plays nurse Denise “Didi” Ortley, a new hire.

Didi’s first day involves obeying conflicting orders regarding some “fecal matter” left on a chair in the lobby. Dr. James wants it preserved for her gerontological fecal study; common hospital sense would demand it be red-bagged and thrown out. Didi seems to be the only person in the unit willing to call a turd a turd.

Nash is note-perfect in the part, summoning wide-eyed astonishment at the escalating series of idiots supervising her while she tries to provide her patients with dignity and sympathetic care. (Even when a deranged patient calls her racist names.)

“Getting On” is not a rip-snorter, but it has the right skill for finding gallows humor in situations that are deplorably and painfully true-to-life. It’s a clever display of sharp objects.

‘Ja’mie: Private School Girl’

Right after “Getting On” — for dessert, if you will — HBO has another six-episode comedy premiering Sunday from Chris Lilley, the Australian creator/performer behind “Summer Heights High” and “Angry Boys.”

If Lilley’s work has escaped your attention so far, then you might possibly be outside his target demo — I’m told the kids (whoever they are) can’t get enough of him. Lilley specializes in mockumentaries about teenagers and grown-ups of various socioeconomic stripes. He usually plays several characters, regardless of gender or age, and part of the joke is that no matter what role he’s playing, little can be done to disguise the fact that he’s a 39-year-old man in a wig.

Here, he reprises one unforgettable part, and she could well be his crowning triumph — Jamie King, an in­cred­ibly spoiled teenager who attends an exclusive all-girls school.

As her popularity ascends, Jamie adds an apostrophe to her name, becoming the vaingloriously temperamental Jah-MEY. In the final weeks of her senior year (“year 12”) Ja’mie revels in terrorizing underclassmen as well as her parents and teachers with her Kardashian-level entitlement streak. Everyone loathes Ja’mie except for her loyal “prefects,” a cadre of popular girls who follow her around and supply the air that inflates her ego.

I admit to being underwhelmed by some of Lilley’s previous efforts, but “Ja’mie” is an enjoyably sick wallow in the evil that lurks in adolescence, as well as a formidable exercise in extreme portraiture. The jokes and situations can be ugly and uncomfortably discriminatory, and I do wonder what Lilley really gains by making fun of snooty teenage girls — fish in a barrel full of iPhones. It helps that Lilley dedicates himself to a sole character, requiring less than one episode for viewers to completely believe in Ja’mie and savor a taste of the (alas, fleeting) comeuppance in store for her.

Getting On

(30 minutes, first of six episodes) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO.

Ja’mie: Private School Girl

(30 minutes, first of six episodes) premieres Sunday at 10:30 p.m.
on HBO.

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