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Review: Laura Linney Fights Cancer (and Cliches) in 'The Big C'

by Maureen Ryan, posted Jun 27th 2011 2:30PM
You'd think one of the goals of a show about a cancer patient would be to get viewers invested in the survival of the patient.

But 'The Big C' (10:30PM ET Monday, Showtime) is so manipulative and contrived that it tends to shoot itself in the foot in that regard, despite the fact that the very talented Laura Linney is the show's star.

Linney can play vulnerability like nobody's business, and she occasionally gets chances to do that in this "comedy." But the actress also has a brittle side, one that 'The Big C' unwisely plays up more than it should, and the show's supporting characters are often either wasted or trapped in predictable story lines.

The end result is that, despite the fact that I'm a huge fan of Linney, 'The Big C' irritated me more frequently than it got me interested in the present and future of cancer patient Cathy Jamison.

There have been a few improvements since I stopped watching the show about halfway through its first season. 'The Big C' has reined in the hammier side of Oliver Platt, who plays Cathy's husband, Paul, and Alan Alda, who makes a one-time appearance in the second episode of the season, is terrific as an in-demand melanoma specialist.

Yet Cathy's tentative friendship with her previous cancer doctor, Dr. Mauer (Reid Scott), was one of the best things about the first season. With Dr. Mauer, the uptight Cathy was able to not just talk about her fears but also relax and flirt a little. The fact that Cathy and Dr. Mauer (who appears briefly in the first episode of season 2) liked each other as more than just doctor and patient was an interesting and ambiguous grey area for the show, and the actors appeared to enjoy playing off their natural chemistry.

But ambiguity and subtlety aren't really of interest to 'The Big C.' Cancer is a big topic, and too often the show's response is to attack it with anvils. The busy pace tends to add to the sense that the show doesn't actually want to dwell on the central reality of Cathy's life -- that this (very healthy looking woman) could die soon. Not that it should be a festival of grimness focusing obsessively on that fact, but I get the sense that 'The Big C' doesn't actually have much to say about mortality, so it dances around the topic, hoping to distract the viewer with a lot of incidents, confrontations and superficial "wisdom."

The most frustrating thing about 'The Big C' is that there are a few good scenes here and there that serve as reminders that the show could have been more than just another product of the Showtime women-in-crisis/awards-bait assembly line. Yet the prognosis is not promising for a show -- a would-be dark comedy, no less -- that makes a character spout the line "We're not patients, we're people!"

The most inexplicable thing about 'The Big C' is the amount of screen time it gives to Cathy's manic-depressive brother, Sean (John Benjamin Hickey), and his narcissistic girlfriend, the one-dimensional yuppie Rebecca (Cynthia Nixon). Nixon and Hickey are good actors, and Sean's strident side has been toned down a bit, but the characters' relationship issues -- the mildly ditzy Rebecca is pregnant and Sean's wary of going back on medication for his condition -- aren't particularly compelling.

Perhaps their self-absorption is supposed to serve as a backdrop for Cathy's virtuous qualities, but these two people should be interesting in their own right. They're not, and there's a Sean story in episode 4 (my least favorite of the four Showtime sent for review) that is maddeningly obvious in every possible way.

The show also struggles to give something meaningful to Gabourey Sidibe to do. She plays Andrea, one of the students at the high school where Cathy teaches, and though her acerbic asides occasionally hit the mark, Andrea appears to be in Cathy's orbit to remind her that she is brave. The scenes with Cathy's teen son are similarly forgettable, and Paul gets his share of sigh-inducing moments as well (early in one episode, Paul tells Cathy that he "doesn't miss" sex. One guess as to where that plot goes.)

According to the show's press notes, this season Cathy has moved past denial and is going through the "anger" stage of accepting her illness, so there are a lot of conflicts and confrontations, but most of the show's aggressiveness -- not to mention its forays into aggressive quirkiness -- feels somewhat forced and doesn't resonate on an emotional level. Having a character and her family deal with a potentially fatal illness is such a rich arena for both drama and black comedy, but so far, 'The Big C' hasn't been able to mine that topic with consistent freshness and depth.

I think I've reached the acceptance stage with this show -- I've accepted that despite the flashes of Linney's talent, Cathy's health crisis is not for me.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Wow... I completely loved the season premier. I'm still very much invested in Cathy Jamison and am so glad her husband and son finally know about her cancer. I agree that it was irritating watching Cathy behave like a jackass last season and get into unnecessary fights with her family simply because she didn't want to tell them about her illness. While I liked where they were going with her relationship with the oncologist, I think it's a good idea to have her branch out and seek a 2nd opinion. It is an opportunity to broaden the cast and Cathy's world.

By the way Laura Linney is such a terrific actress. She can make me laugh in one scene and break down and cry in the next. She's such a joy to watch.

Oliver Platt was a little annoying at first last season, but he really grew on me over the course of it and I just loved him in this first episode. His explanation to the shrink about what's going on with Adam---aggressive farting, lol---was priceless. And I love seeing scenes with both Platt and Linney. I was smiling ear to ear when they were both high and laughing their heads off about the kiss.

I didn't at all like the character of Sean and am sorry to say I still find scenes with him hard to watch. I get it---he's gross and opinionated and can be such a jerk to Cathy...it gets old after a while.

I did like Marlene the first season and her influence on both Cathy and her interaction with Adam. Bringing her back Six Feet Under style was an interesting choice. I especially loved the scene at the end where Thomas is found to still be alive and she's sitting in the background smiling. I'm curious if she'll be sticking around for the rest of the season.

If this season covers Fall and they are planning on doing a season per season of TV, I wonder if this is limited to 4 seasons of Cathy's remaining life or if they have plans to turn this into a longer series, either by having Cathy hang on longer or center the series around another character. As much as I like Cathy, I do think she needs to die at some point. This means either the show ends or they need to have fully developed characters in the supporting cast that could carry the show in the future.

July 02 2011 at 4:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I agree with your review Mo completely. The show is too annoying and the characters too grating to make the show, which does have great actors and an interesting premise, work. I do think there is a show to be made about a woman tackling cancer, but this show tries so hard to be funny, without ever being any good. Where the show could ground a lot of its humor in emotional poignancy (such as the fact that her son is pushing away from his mother), they instead make it into lazy jokes (her son farts a lot! Arlene's dog is dead... just kidding!).

Out of all the female centric dramedies on Showtime, the success of this one astounds me. I can admit that it did stir up emotion in me with its first season finale, but I'm starting to feel like that finale was not earned at all as the show itself has not consistently been as emotionally grounded or as good as that finale was. I really loved United States of Tara and while that was never much of a comedy, it didn't even try to be in its third season, and benefitted from that as it found new dramatic ground to work with. This show I'm certain will go around in circles, making the characters verge from shrill to shriller, mainly because of the inherently limiting premise, but also because it’s clear Darlene Hunt only manages to write these characters (or shall we say caricatures?) in conflict with each other, and therefore the character arcs feel strained and contrived, just to have story to tell.

My main issue with Nurse Jackie last season was similar, but that show still has the possibility of breaking with its premise and try to change, it just doesn't bother doing it, whereas this show, already in its second season, can't go on for that many seasons without killing off Cathy or changing the premise entirely by curing her. I still find myself drawn to Weeds after all these years because the characters interests me, Nancy's self-destructiveness feels real to me because she has been consistently written as such ever since the show began, and has allowed the show to pull back all the layers of her identity. Whereas with this show, Cathy has no identity beyond being a cancer patient and a terrible-but-loving mother, and makes for a shrill, unlikable character who is, to make matters even worse - boring. She has nowhere to go but dying and the show has two go to moves by now - either making her fight for her life (which is apparent this season) or making her accept death (which she began to do last season), so there isn't room for growth in this show, as the case has been with Weeds and Tara, let alone the potential for growth Jackie has. That being said The Big C still has potential to make what it is better than what it currently is, but that would probably need better writers.

What did you think Mo of last season of Jackie and Tara? I remember you not liking those either that much in March, but now that the show is done, do you still feel Tara was as running in place as you originally thought it was?

June 30 2011 at 4:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm afraid I just don't get you, Mo. I frequently feel the show you're reviewing and the one I'm watching are two totally different things. And it's not like I'm easy to please or anything. I have a pretty small list of don't-miss shows. This one is definitely on it. I love the constantly shifting tone which I think the talented cast handles very well.

June 28 2011 at 7:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Craig Ranapia

Forget it Mo, it's Showtime -- their "thing" seems to be to attract insanely talented leads (Linney, Toni Collete & Edie Falco) give them solid supporting casts and intriguing premises..., but never quite get around to bringing the writing up to their level.

Still, wouldn't it be inanely awesome if someone built a show around Linney, Collete & Falco that was actually worthy of their considerable talents? I think my TV would BURN with awesomeness. :)

June 28 2011 at 3:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Wow. Did I just read a recap for "the killing"?

I seriously love this show for what it is. based on last season, we know it's more of a "dram-ety" than a straight up comedy show.

June 27 2011 at 6:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

You are wrong on so many ts. I love this show.

June 27 2011 at 4:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

You are wrong on so many fronts. I love this show.

June 27 2011 at 4:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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