The Big C is a series which pushes the boundaries, even by the standards of Showtime, the network which has brought us dark comedies about a suburban drug-dealing widow (Weeds) and an adulterous painkiller-popping nurse (Nurse Jackie). This pilot episode hits the ground running, broaching one of the last great taboos of our modern society – terminal illness – and daring us to laugh along with it.
The series gives us a central character, Cathy Jamison, who has stage four cancer but treats her situation as something to be enjoyed rather than endured. She (at least in this pilot episode) keeps her diagnosis secret from her loved ones, to the extent that she would rather her husband Paul (Oliver Platt) assumes she is having an affair with her doctor. She marches into an elderly neighbour’s house and calls her “a f***ing c***”. She bluntly tells one of her students she can either be fat or mean but not both, then bribes her to lose weight. She plays dead in a blood-soaked bath and locks Adam, her teenage son, in the bathroom to make him unblock a toilet.
If this had been any other character in any other show – or placed in the hands of a less accomplished actress than Laura Linney (The Truman Show, The Savages) – Cathy would be completely unsympathetic, or at best a one-note caricature. Linney recently won the Gloden Globe for Best TV Musical/Comedy Actress for this role, and even in this opening half-hour you can see why. Hers is a complex and layered performance which allows the viewer to see beyond mere dialogue to the torrent of conflicting emotions which lies beneath the facade she presents to the outside world.
We find ourselves rooting for Cathy – and this is the episode’s cleverest trick of all – not because she has cancer, but because her diagnosis starts to liberate her from all her inhibitions and hang-ups. After all, if you can’t enjoy your days when you know you only have a small number of them left, when can you?
We see her embark on this epic journey, from the woman she has always been to the person she wants to be. To begin with, everyone sees her as safe, boring and slightly anal. As Paul puts it:
You like to do other things that people might consider less than an optimal good time … like organise stuff and clean stuff and put things in containers.
There is no big soap opera-style revelation here, merely a series of small, incremental discoveries. Cathy takes delight in deliberately spilling wine on her sofa cushions, in turning the tables on her practical joking son, in getting her own way with the pool man, and in finally talking about how she really feels about the prospect of dying – with a dog. As her brother Sean (John Benjamin Hickey) tells her at the end of the episode, she starts getting her weird back. In a good way.
There is certainly scope for improvement as the season unfolds. All the supporting characters are painted in only the broadest of brush strokes as this initial half-hour focuses rightly on Cathy, but their reactions to her once her situation is revealed will be crucial additions to the broader canvas.
And, of course, the show can only credibly have a limited life-span. Apparently each season is intended to span one season of real time – the pilot takes place on the first day of summer – with the intention being to take Cathy on a journey through the five stages of grief, from denial to acceptance. (There are certainly signs of both denial and the second stage, anger, in Cathy’s actions and behaviour here.) It promises to be quite a ride.
It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why The Big C appeals to me so much. But this first episode, ironically, crackles with life. It made me properly laugh and, at times, made me feel distinctly uncomfortable. But, most of all, it made me think. Despite the seriousness of its subject matter, this episode succeeded in being strangely uplifting. Quite a feat.
Maybe we could all do with getting our weird back.
The Big C continues on More4, Thursday at 11pm.
Rating: 1.01 Pilot – 9/10
- The Big C is not the cancer comedy for me | Deborah Orr (guardian.co.uk)
- The Big C: Comedy that dares to tackle cancer (independent.co.uk)