'The Big C' : Showtime series takes cancer seriously, but in a funny way

"The Big C" stars Laura Linney as Cathy Jamison, a reserved schoolteacher who decides it's time to make some drastic life changes after a cancer diagnosis. The show premieres Aug. 16 at 10:30 p.m. ET on Showtime.
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 16, 2010

You can't begrudge someone his or her custom-tailored response to a cancer diagnosis. Not in this culture, where the disease looms so large that it bestows an air of nobility and courage on all who come down with it or come across it, including those who live with people who have it.

We're not good at much these days -- having outsourced our hardest labor and tuned out crisis after crisis while surrounding ourselves in ephemeral luxuries -- but boy, are we good at telling ourselves that there's something sunshiny about having cancer.

Or are we?

"The Big C," Showtime's beguiling new dramedy that premieres Monday night, seems at first to be the radically unconventional cancer story that many of us have waited to see. Frontloaded with advance hype and reflexive praise for its star -- the unerring Laura Linney -- the series is indeed a darkly comical and affirming antidote to the pink-ribbon and yellow-bracelet platitudes that have defined the modern cancer experience.

For a recent and real example of this, say what you will about professional intellectual Christopher Hitchens and his occasionally poisonous devotion to the opposing view. Cancer, which he had diagnosed in June (esophageal, lung, lymph nodes), has given him a new, softer perch from which to consider his usual arguments against God and piety. But first, even Hitchens must quibble with the sometimes empty language of the cancer world, as he does in his column in the current issue of Vanity Fair:

"People don't have cancer," he writes, "they are reported to be battling cancer. No well-wisher omits the combative image: You can beat this. It's even in obituaries for cancer losers, as if one might reasonably say of someone that they died after a long and brave struggle with mortality. You don't hear it about long-term sufferers from heart disease or kidney failure."

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"The Big C" is certainly not the first piece of entertainment to see the powerful potential in contrarian gallows humor and the absurd ways that cancer changes everything. A handful of comedians and writers have gone there before, some never to return, and such efforts are judged by the gold standard that was "Terms of Endearment," which came out 27 years ago.

Buoyed by scalpel-sharp writing and even keener performances, "The Big C" (created by comedian and sitcom writer Darlene Hunt) walks a fine line of having it both ways. It's for people who are repelled by the warm-fuzzy, disease-o'-the-week dramas of cable television. But surprise! Judging from the first three episodes, "The Big C" is itself a warm-fuzzy disease drama; it's just wearing a lot of sarcasm and edge as its preferred style of Snuggie blanket. Where cancer is concerned, "The Big C" reveals that it's impossible to remain utterly heartless.

Linney plays Cathy, a wife, mother and high school history teacher in suburban Minneapolis. Her disease diagnosis is stage-4 melanoma, which appears in the form of a nasty-looking streak on her back that has metastasized within her. She's also decided to forgo treatment.

"I've always loved my hair," she explains to handsome Dr. Todd (Reid Scott), her baffled oncologist who wants Cathy to undergo the usual attack of chemotherapy and radiation. "I cry every time I get it cut."

Moreover, she hasn't told anyone she's sick: Not her immature husband, Paul (Oliver Platt), whom she's kicked out of the house; not her petulant teenage son, Adam (Gabriel Basso), who bosses her around and won't flush the toilet after himself; not her obnoxious older brother, Sean (John Benjamin Hickey), who's chosen to live on the streets and preach anti-consumer screeds to big-box store customers and SUV drivers.

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