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Emerging on the Side Stage: A New Era for Women on HBO

Heidi Khaled December 23, 2014 Culture, Television and Film Comments Off on Emerging on the Side Stage: A New Era for Women on HBO
Emerging on the Side Stage: A New Era for Women on HBO

by Heidi Khaled and Brett Bumgarner

Two shows, both held together by the common plotline of poop.

Valerie Cherish sits down in her trailer with a producer for the HBO series in which she plays a fictionalized version of herself to learn about changes to the script. Valerie’s hairdresser Mickey, however, is loudly defecating in Valerie’s bathroom due to cancer medications he is taking that upset his stomah. Valerie attempts to pretend that this is not going on, but once Mickey comes out, he launches into a mortified jumble of acknowledgement and self-pity.

Dr. Jenna James, the ward’s director of medicine, does research on poop. She pines over typologies of fecal matter, attends poop conferences, and obsesses over the poop of her geriatric patients. In the opening of the first season, a patient poops in a chair, and she insists to Didi, one of the nurses, that it should be referred to as feces rather than ‘a turd.’

Laurie Metcalf (best known for having played Aunt Jackie on ‘Roseanne’) plays Dr. Jenna James in Getting On, which just finished its second season on HBO. The series is somehow a hilarious representation of the everyday complications, intense emotions, and the cold and complicated bureaucracy that hospice care workers encounter in dealing with life and death.

And in The Comeback, in the middle of its second season now, Lisa Kudrow plays a woman who gets another chance to make it in the industry, though she instead comes back to the realization, this time through the brutality of both fictional and documentarian accounts, that she is now hopelessly relegated to the old hag, the butt of the joke, rather than the alluring and glamorous star.

Getting On and The Comeback both focus on the experiences of women that are familiar in real life but comprise a rarity on the hit shows we’ve come to anticipate from big networks. Both shows hinge on the comedy of things hidden from view suddenly being yanked into broad daylight – whether a reality show producer always trying to get to the dark side of a beaten down actress, or the dark side of the medical industry and those involved in end-of-life matters. But along with those subjects more hidden from view we also find older female actresses, female actresses that don’t conform to stereotypical appearances, and female actresses of color – and they dazzle us with glowing performances and provocative lessons that everyone should pay attention to.

Set in the Extended Care Unit of a dreary hospital in Long Beach, California, Getting On follows the lives of the ward’s staff; Alex Borstein (best known from Family Guy and Mad TV) is Dawn Forchette, the head nurse. Didi Ortley, the hospice-nurse liaison, is played by Niecy Nash (of Reno 911 fame). And Patsy De La Serda, supervising nurse, is played by Mel Rodriguez. It’s worth noting that all of these actors are over forty years old, and aside from Rodriguez, the principal cast is comprised entirely of women.

While it takes place in a dark setting, and there are no real ‘jokes’ per se, Getting On is definitely a comedy-comedy. Like “The Office,” it derives its humor from clever dialogue juxtapositions, quirky characters, and amusing situations (though without that signature deadpan staring at the camera).

The comedy relies on the dysfunctional elements of the hospital. Lots of slapstick hilarity in particular ensues from daily technological and bureaucratic failures. For instance, one scene features problems with a reclining hospital bed, bending crazily in all sorts of different directions. In one episode this season, the computers crash and the staff operates through ‘old school communication.’ The staff, with a deaf patient, attempts to connect to an interpreter via video, though faces telecommunications problems and hastily moves everything into the ward in attempt to locate a stronger WiFi signal. You see one doctor aggressively cleaning a coffee stain from the crotch of another during a meeting. HVAC goes down, turning the unit into a sweaty mess that Didi has no patience for.

In another episode, Dr. James and Nurse Fochette are in the bathroom, peeing and chatting, but the sensor-activated lights keep going out. So Borstein’s character jumps around and waves her arms for two minutes to keep the lights on so that Dr. James can finish her pee.

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Alex Borstein as Nurse Fochette   (Image by Lacy Terrell / HBO)

Unlike the flashy shows we expect from HBO, the atmosphere of Getting On is hopelessly dreary. Getting On’s brilliance is that it highlights the normal entropy of everyday life that get glossed over – the floors and the soap dispensers and the lights; the mice that get loose and crawl through fixtures and air vents; and everything is about poop because of the poop study. Everything is always crumbling and malfunctioning. Much like the entropy of the experience of dying.

Another notable thing about the show: nobody really wears any makeup. No one on the cast is conventionally attractive by Hollywood standards. The lighting on the show is a harsh florescent, realistic for hospitals.

It’s as if you walked away from the ward where Grey’s Anatomy takes place and entered the sad, dark corridors where people go to die. And poop.

The realism also lies in the relationships between people on the show and the problems they deal with. This last season deals with a plot arc concerning hospice fraud, Medicaid, kickbacks, and finally whistle-blowing. The characters are even realistic in that they generally, perhaps with the exception of Nurse Ortley, are not very likeable – you see their personality flaws. Across them all is a varying mix of empathy and callousness.

The doctors are daft and concerned with keeping up appearances among other doctors. Dr. James even starts doing her makeup and hair, but when things start to go downhill, she goes back to her frumpy look. The nurses, who are of course underpaid, sometimes care too much, and get themselves into trouble for it.

The unpleasantness of the ward’s activities serves as a mirror for many things, among them, the aesthetic of the cast and the lighting of the set. Getting On, in effect, takes place behind the curtains of the glossy sets we claim to be everyday life.

Funny enough, in The Comeback you also see Lisa Kudrow’s character fretting about lighting. In fact, the lighting is major for Valerie Cherish, who desperately tries to maintain an idealized image of what her life is. But for Valerie, what is interfering with that presentation of the ideal life is her job and those who surround her.

The return of The Comeback is ironically itself a meta comeback for Kudrow; the series initially aired in 2005 and was since shelved for all this time. Though HBO had long ago decided it was a one-season show, over time it gained massive cult appreciation, prompting the network to reconsider the series.

In season 1 of The Comeback, Valerie Cherish plays Aunt Sassy, old bat and maker of bad jokes, on a shitty sitcom called Room and Bored. She is at odds with one of the show’s co-creators, Paulie G, and after being continually insulted by both demeaning lines and his behavior towards her on set, she ends up punching him toward the end of the season.

This season, Paulie G, is creating another show, Seeing Red, and has decided to cast Cherish as a fictionalized version of herself, the obnoxious female that the male lead (based on Paulie G) must deal with while writing a shitty sitcom. Seth Rogen is cast to play Paulie G in the show within the show.

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So you see this show told from the perspective of a guy who wants to depict himself as the male anti-hero (think Tony Soprano, or Don Draper, that anti-hero that HBO is so well-known for) observing an actress over 40 that has a role in it. And then there’s a documentary filming about filming the show. If that’s confusing, don’t blame us; it actually is that confusing. And because it’s on HBO and parodying HBO, the whole thing is like the Inception of TV.

On an episode this season, a journalist from the New York Times interviews Valerie Cherish on her new fictional series, Seeing Red. And she tells Cherish that her role is “very brave.” Brave, of course, in the eyes of Valerie Cherish (and perhaps because we are so used to seeing its implications in such a context with women who don’t look enough Hollywood) is code for ugly.

So Valerie thinks that the whole critique is that she is made to look unattractive to make the product more cinematic. So she voices concerns about the lighting – on both Seeing Red and in the documentary. She wants pretty, glossy, bright lights that the daytime talk show hosts have. And when she finds out that shooting is only four days away, she exclaims, ‘I need to prepare!’ She tries to book appointments for Botox and lip injections, but the network says no, we just want you as you are.

Valerie, who in the most recent episode can’t name any characters beyond waitresses, plays the shrew, the sad sack to the anti-hero that Seth Rogen plays on Seeing Red. Her monologue for her audition for the character based on her own self includes lines such as, ‘I’m old, I’m annoying, I’m un-fuckable!’

Producers for her show and the documentary, who want to exploit cracks in her relationship with her husband, further sabotage a dinner for which she’s already late. When Cherish attempts to reconcile, she is coerced to wear a wire to capture content for the documentary. When her husband Mark brings up his cheating and Valerie’s abortion during the dinner, Valerie reaches into her blouse and tries to disconnect her mic.

In the latest episode, Valerie discovers the documentary is called The Assassination of Valerie Cherish. It of course focuses on the downfall of her career and personal life. But while trying to stifle any image that conflicts with the one she’s trying to present while promoting her Emmy nomination, she claims to the critics, ‘That’s a working title!’

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Getting On and The Comeback play back-to-back on the same network, which is interesting, given the dearth of shows of this kind on television.

Thinking about older female characters on television, only a few complex characters come to mind, and of course they’re all on premium channels. One example is Laura Dern in Enlightened (another show that seriously merits a comeback). And perhaps Edie Falco in both Nurse Jackie and The Sopranos also escapes definition via the sexy milf / unsexy wife / grandma / saint / harpy shrew typology we so commonly ascribe to their demographic.

Very rarely do you see a female on TV that is not a saint or whore or ingénue, or someone to laugh at. We are reminded maybe most frequently of the trope of the harpy wife. Most notably in recent television, this character’s ideal type is found on the wife on Breaking Bad played by Anna Gunn. Dedicated audiences of the show absolutely loathed her — Gunn wrote as much in an op-ed for The New York Times. What a terrible role for a woman. And the wife on True Detective serves as a somewhat malevolent sexual conqueror who brings about intense conflict between the detectives that overshadows their actual work at hand.

The women you see on Getting On and The Comeback are complex, flawed protagonists; they are real, and they are not there for your sexual stimulation or your loathing; you root for them, you cringe for them, and you think profoundly about their situations.

Both of these shows demonstrate increasing attention to the significant-yet-perhaps-previously-thought-too mundane-for-Hollywood, the things that women go through when they have crossed the line into older adulthood. Part of those things is the realization that one is less recognized, less acknowledged. Kudrow’s character is repeatedly broken down by the show’s asshole, who is also her boss, in the trivial yet tortuous ways that so many women are judged by their appearances in jobs outside of Hollywood. And in Getting On, we see women like Nash’s character deal with family issues, work conflicts, and the stress of seeing people trying to hang on at the darkest points in their lives.

These shows portray the struggles of older women in society, but the shows (and the mere fact that they are noteworthy in and of themselves) speak to the disturbing absence of women over 40 in Hollywood.

Female stars face a brutal reality as they age. Not unlike the things that we see Valerie Cherish go through in The Comeback, tabloid coverage of Lara Flynn Boyle and Renee Zellweger question their possibly plastic faces and exacerbate the pressure that these women face to remain relevant. Geena Davis and Melanie Griffith have spoken out about the lack of roles for women, and especially as they get older. And like Valerie Church, we see that women who do not fit the stereotype of the female vixen must be “brave.” Charlize Theron is so brave in Monster. Oh, Lena Dunham is so brave. Jennifer Aniston in Cake is so brave.

Indeed, even “Women Over 40” is itself another insulting Hollywood cliché. We still marvel in annual magazine issues dedicated to “Women Over 40” who still (somehow! how do they do it!) manage to look fabulous. “Women Over 40” is simultaneously a stereotype, a fetish, and an indication of the longstanding under-valuing of an entire population segment.

Many people still don’t know that Getting On even exists, despite the second season having just ended. It has received poor ratings, and some critical buzz but not much really, yet the show boasts a wonderful and well-respected comedic cast. The Comeback gained recognition with its own comeback this season, but it still has not yet garnered the breakout attention that HBO shows with male leads get. Put simply, it feels criminal that these shows do not get that much attention.

These shows also share an attention to the sometimes porous divide between front stage and back stage, the figurative and physical spaces where we respectively perform versions of ourselves suited for certain audiences, and the selves we are when we think no one is watching. Valerie Cherish desperately tries to keep up the appearance of success and perfection, despite every element around her pushing her most embarrassing shit into center stage. And in Getting On, we get an eye into something we as a society try to push back, back, as far back stage as it will go – death. Something we also deal with increasingly as we get older and eventually see more funerals than baby showers.

And maybe when it comes to a more literal sense of the stage – both in these shows and for the women unconventional to Hollywood yet conventional to everyday life – there’s a new stage emerging for them, a side stage of sorts, where they gain some kind of recognition, albeit not necessarily the kind you see on the marquee surrounded by lights.

Anyway, back to poop. The poop is a metaphor for dealing with the things we shove into the backstage, the hidden corridors, the underbelly, the ugliness. The ugliness we each face when we step into the reality of our greatest insecurities and fears and depressions and disappointments. The ugliness we face (at best, the insulting condescension of being called ‘brave’) when we step outside the bounds of arbitrary and heavily oppressive social standards to just … be … ourselves.

Is this a trend? We’ll probably see more top-tier shows featuring people who are decidedly normal-looking. And hopefully soon enough there will be a point where it won’t be noteworthy for conventional looking women, women over forty, and women of color to have lead roles.

These are two great shows that allow for hilarious, fascinating, provocative portrayals of women that don’t turn them into these extremely limited archetypes. This development is worth watching, enjoying, and celebrating.

The season (and possibly the series) finale of The Comeback airs this Sunday, December 28, 10:00 pm ET/PT on HBO.

 

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About The Author

Heidi Khaled has a PhD from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Heidi currently resides in Seattle, researching and writing in the areas of fashion, music, politics, social media, and consumer culture.

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