"It's such a fine line, what we're doing," Borstein says. "We need Mark and Will to tell us if we go too far. Now it feels like you're exploiting someone, now it feels cheap to be cheap, there's an art to making this right."

Metcalf plays Dr. Jenna James, a burned-out physician who feels insulted by her assignment to the Billy Barnes unit. She wanted to be a medical-research star and is obsessed with collecting and analyzing feces, an ongoing metaphor for the show's bleak environment. The correct way to pick up an errant sample off a waiting room chair dominates an entire episode.

Only Nash's character, Nurse DiDi, seems normal, but her kindness and pragmatism go largely unnoticed by her co-workers.

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"I feel like the gift God gave me was the ability to make everything funny," Nash says. "I'm not proud of the fact that I chuckle at funerals, that I find the funny in a sad or dark moment, but that's what this is about."

Scheffer calls the show a "docu-comedy" because it's filmed in an off-the-cuff manner with cameras following the characters around as they experiment with blocking and occasionally improv lines. And, in what many would consider heretical by Hollywood standards, the actors do not get their hair or makeup done. The existing overhead fluorescent bulbs serve as the only lighting set up.

"The three of us have joked that we are three of the bravest actresses in TV right now with no hair and no makeup," Metcalf says. "It's a luxury to not have to worry about it, but it's also a kick in the face — being willing to look like you've had a hard day on your feet."

"This show is really about faces and hearts," says Olsen, adding that getting actresses to audition without makeup was a true challenge. "There is such beauty in those unadorned faces. The beauty of seeing life's struggle on those faces is so much of what this show is about."

jessica.gelt@latimes.com

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'Getting On'

Where: HBO

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)