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Is There Comedy in Geriatric Care? Yes, on HBO

Laurie Metcalf (left) and Alex Borstein (right) star in HBO's new series

Getting On, HBO's off-kilter new comedy series, is about nurses and doctors working in a female geriatric care unit at a California hospital - not exactly the sort of setting that would seem to inspire humor. Still, the show has genuinely funny moments, even while it remains realistic about its environment.

It's a delicate balancing act, though. Take the first moments of the show's premiere, which airs Sunday night at 10 on the pay cable network: brand-new nurse Didi (Niecy Nash) discovers feces on a chair in the unit's waiting room. She tells veteran nurse Dawn (Alex Borstein), who dutifully initiates the bureaucratic hospital process that must be followed for removal of such a deposit. Meantime, Dr. Jenna James (Laurie Metcalf) hears about the incident and curtly requests that someone collect the feces for her use as part of an ongoing stool sample study.

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"This could forever change the way we think about fecal discharge," the doctor later explains of her work on the subject.

Getting On is built around incidents like that one, many of them darkly funny in the moment but tremendously sad if fully contemplated. And much of the humor revolves around the red tape that gets in the way of modern healthcare - a topic that cuts fairly close to the bone in these Obamacare days, but may not inspire much beyond rueful guffaws.

It helps greatly that the cast is first-rate. Metcalf, 58 and a multiple Emmy winner from her Roseanne days, shines as Dr. James, a woman whose medical ambitions once extended far beyond stewardship of a poorly run geriatric unit. But it's Borstein, best known as the nasally voice of Lois, Peter Griffin's animated better half on Fox's long-running Family Guy, who really holds the whole thing together. As Dawn, the nurse whose uneven workplace demeanor mirrors a clumsy, chaotic personal life, the 40-year-old is a revelation.

Getting On continues a recent trend of new shows that find humor in unexpected places. Derek, the Netflix original series created by Ricky Gervais, takes place at an assisted living facility. Orange is the New Black, another Netflix newbie, is set in a women's prison. Theses shows rely heavily on characters that can draw viewers into uncomfortable settings and situations. On that count, Getting On gets off to a promising start.

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