Murky prognosis for Showtime’s cancer comedy

LOS ANGELES - The adventurous world of cable original programming is rife with taboo-busting tales.

By (Reuters)

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Published: Mon 16 Aug 2010, 12:44 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 3:12 AM

Into the crowd of well-meaning meth dealers, anxiety-ridden mobsters and suburban pot-dealing mamas rides “The Big C,” Showtime’s new comedy starring Laura Linney. The show, which premieres Monday, strives to put the fun back into terminal illness — while avoiding the word “cancer” as long as possible.

It’s a strange dance that “Big C” initiates: Linney’s Cathy Jamison has Stage 4 melanoma and opts to dodge treatment so she can enjoy the rest of her time on Earth. She’s also keeping her diagnosis a secret as she clings to these remaining threads of life, which makes her loved ones — estranged husband Paul (Oliver Platt) and teenage son Adam (Gabriel Basso) — confused, then irritated.

This is meant to be funny because Cathy has a skewed vision of herself; she’s never really let loose and can only fumble with efforts to do so now (she sets the hated living room couch on fire and sunbathes nude in the backyard). Her more successful forays come from the gut, as when she tells off a curmudgeonly neighbour (Phyllis Somerville) or lunches flirtatiously with her dermatologist (Reid Scott) about how he handled his first terminal diagnosis (hers). Notes her brother (John Benjamin Hickey), “You’re starting to get your weird back, sis,” to which Linney tells him slyly, “You have no idea.”

The results are hit-and-miss. Linney is one of our great underestimated actresses (three Oscar nominations, three Emmy wins), whose initial brittle vulnerability belies unexpected strength. She gets to run the gamut here, from scenes of subtle, surprising humour with Scott (Cathy wants to know his nonclinical take on her body and is amused that he admires her “rack”) to devastatingly dramatic monologues — check out the final scene in the pilot.

But Cathy is surrounded by characters, rather than people, and that’s where the role begins to feel showoff-y. She’s able to reduce them all into a type with a sharp comment yet remains unformed herself; the reasoning behind her refusal to share her diagnosis is hazy at best, for example. Such soft areas, and a feeling of forced quirkiness, keep “Big C” from being a Class A series. Still, it’s a show that, like Cathy, almost certainly will find its footing as time goes on and, like terminal illness, undoubtedly will provide a few surprises before the end.

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