Getting On is, quite simply, one of the greatest shows on TV. This quiet dramedy centers on Dr. Jenna James (Laurie Metcalf) and nurses Dawn Forchette (Alex Borstein) and Didi Ortley (Niecy Nash). While originally based on the BBC show, HBO’s Getting On has developed a unique take on the flaws of America’s healthcare system. This might sound heavy for a half hour comedy, but it oscillates so seamlessly between tragedy, comedy and satire that it manages to be incredibly funny, sad and thoughtful—almost at the same time.
Part of the show’s brilliance lies in its three leading ladies: Metcalf, Borstein and Nash are all experts at comedy. They are also, however, exceptionally talented dramatic performers. Their portrayals of three somewhat lost characters are grounded, nuanced and filled with love.
Paste caught up with Alex Borstein to talk about the show’s final season, the origins of Dawn’s psychosis, and her favorite moments on set.
: What first appealed to you about Getting On?
Alex Borstein: I was actually developing something similar for BBC America at the time that Getting On was being developed. I was working on my own script and I saw something on Deadline or whatever about Mark [Olsen], and Will [Scheffer] and Getting On—the British version. I clicked on the link to the British series, and I was so jealous.
Cut to eight months later, I finished writing my project ,and it was kind of dead in the water and they were casting Getting On. I just had a baby and I was thinking that I was not going to work at that time. But I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
It’s so well written. Mark and Will are so smart and it’s so layered. When does a woman have an opportunity to play such a real and a complicated character? It’s just so juicy. Every second. Everything that you get to do in the script is like a trip to Disneyland for an actor. I love the tone. I love that it’s heartbreaking in one moment, and then pretty broadly comedic in the next. It’s so perfectly balanced. I’ve never read anything else like it.
Paste: In the past you’ve talked about Dawn’s backstory—about how you think that she had taken care of her brothers and sisters and had a strained relationship with her mother.
Borstein: Yeah, I suspect that she either had no mother or that her mother left. She seems like the type of woman who does not understand what being a woman is.
Paste: Which is interesting, given the environment she goes to work in.
Borstien: Totally! That’s what the pull was for me. She wanted to replace that relationship. She wanted to be around these women. And I think she’s terrified that she’s going to become one of them—that she’s going to die alone in a facility somewhere with no one. No one and nothing. And this is, in some weird way, her attempt to cling to something. To people. And not be an orphan.
Paste: That makes me think of Dawn’s relationship with Didi—they’re presented as a twosome. But in many ways Dawn’’s much more similar to Dr. James in the sense that she’s isolated. They’re like two sides of the same coin.
Borstien: I think she’s really so envious of Didi. She sees that Didi has a full life and a full emotional vocabulary. Didi leads with her heart, Didi has a husband, Didi has a relationship, Didi has children. Didi has this mother-in-law that we introduce in this last episode. Dawn has none of that. She has nothing. I think she’s estranged from the siblings she has at this point, and she just doesn’t know how to function in that realm—she doesn’t know how to create any true relationships, friendship or otherwise. So I think she’s envious.
Paste: Has there been a lot of opportunity for you to help develop the story with these character?
Borstien: Mark and Will are so bright, and so observant, and so interesting. They suck things up right and left. So, obviously, the characters are created by the British series and they laid down what and who she is—that’s where we were at the first season. However, I think as Mark and Will got to know me, as they got to know Laurie and Niecy, every tiny thing they observed they began to include. And they’d slowly bend the character that way. It’s like watching metal heat, or glass blow. They heat it and then they kind of bend it to fit exactly what they want to create. That’s why it works so well.
There’s so much of each of us in these characters. It’s hard to look at. Laurie and I always talk about that—God, we know this is reflective of us and it’s sometimes not that easy to look at. Different aspects of ourselves on the screen. We would have table reads at the beginning of seasons, and read several of the scripts at once, and we would offer up certain ideas and certain lines. These were things they always took into consideration, and a lot of times they’d like thing and include them. But I can’t say we were instrumental in shaping any stories. They really—Mark especially—knew exactly where these people were going, from the beginning.
Paste: It really feels that way. It’s such a complete arc through all three seasons. As an audience member, that’s so satisfying. You really feel like you’ve gone on one continuous journey with all these people.
Borstien: And you don’t know which way it’s going to turn. It’s just so well written. And you’ll see, this sunday is our final episode, and I think doors are left open. It’s heavy and it’s dark, but I think there’s definitely a light that you see at the end. We’ll find out on Sunday.
Paste: It’s interesting to think about that, especially in the context of Dawn’s journey. It seems for her things have gotten grimmer and grimmer. She’s in this marriage with this guy she doesn’t like, and she has this false pregnancy and now she’s got this potentially fatal disease.
Borstien: Isn’t it insane? As she tries to step above the mess, it’s like that scene in Star Wars, in the trash compactor? The higher she tries to get above the trash, something just keeps wrapping above her leg and pulling her back under.
Paste: So is it that her life is the result of her disposition, or her disposition is the result of her life?
Borstien: Isn’t that the age old question? I think it’s both. I don’t think she had a perfect start—she’s so needy, there’s such desperation for her to cling to somebody. The tighter she grasps, the more things kind of slip through her fingers. Then there’s a run of bad luck too. But she chooses very poorly, both with friends and lovers. She doesn’t seek the correct relationships with people who really love her. She doesn’t exert the energy that those ones need to be fed. Instead she chases off of people who are not going to scratch that itch.
Paste: Do you have a personal favorite moment from the show, over all three seasons?
Borstien: Oh wow. My favorite moment to perform? Or my favorite moment as a viewer?
Paste: Let’s hear both.
Borstien: Well, there were some scenes that caught me by surprise when we were doing them. You don’t know what’s going to come out until you’re in it. There was one scene where we were in a conference room and people were reading suggestions from the suggestion box. Patsy pulls out a suggestion that was clearly from me. Talking about “People should not make other people do their research for them unless they are designated to…” So obviously it was written by Dawn to Dr. James, but it was anonymous. She gets into it with me, and all of a sudden I just lose it. I start saying “ Wou make me feel sick, I can’t breathe when I’m with you, I’m gonna throw up, you’re revolting, I don’t wanna do your work-” I just had this huge blow up in this moment. It was scripted so well, but it surprised all of us how severe my reaction was, and how crazy Dawn got in that moment. I’ll never forget that—what came out of me.
Then, as a viewer, really, Laurie Metcalf’s facial expressions are what I love to watch on the show. I’ve said it before, she’s like a Jazz musician. Her face moves through three hundred notes per second. And you can watch something unfold on her face. No words. It’s just perfect. And the last episode where she finds out her mother passed away, and then just has this reaction. She attends a party, and gets shut down by Dr. Rudd… it’s just so painful, and so beautiful and so real. Those are my favorite moments to watch.
Paste: Thanks so much for this.
Borstien: No, listen—I love this show so much. Thank you for talking with me.
The Getting On series finale airs Sunday night at 10PM on HBO.