Linney shines in new Showtime cancer comedy ‘The Big C’

Within the first five minutes of the pilot for Showtime’s new comedy “The Big C,” suburban mom Cathy Jamison tells her doctor she’d prefer not to treat her stage four melanoma with chemotherapy. Defying dramatic conventions, she proclaims her choice flippantly, explaining “I’ve always really loved my hair.” On the other hand, she tells us, she’d be all for chemo if it would do away with her nose.

There are no tears streaming down Cathy’s cheeks, no melancholy minor chords as background music and most significantly no friends or family sitting beside Cathy. In her cancer, Cathy, played with poise by Laura Linney, is remarkably alone.

And for good reason, based on the rest of the first few episodes, which premiered on Aug. 16. In another scene from the pilot, a stone-cold Cathy stares down Andrea, a high school student who causes trouble in Cathy’s summer school class, and calls her fat without remorse. “You can’t be fat and mean, Andrea,” Cathy explains in a matter-of-fact tone, her eyes gleaming triumphantly. “Fat people are jolly for a reason. Fat repels people, but joy attracts them. Now I know everybody’s laughing at your cruel jokes, but nobody’s inviting you to the prom. So you can either be fat and jolly or a skinny bitch. It’s up to you.”

Wow. I first came across the show when I watched this clip online, and it did not bode well. I was genuinely appalled. High school teachers can’t say things like that to their students. Heck, human beings can’t say things like that to fellow human beings at least not if they plan on having any friends. Although, it actually seems as if Cathy doesn’t.

Cathy’s brother, a holier-than-thou environmentalist hobo who heckles passersby for destroying the planet, accuses her of being judgmental. Her obnoxious teenage son can’t spend two consecutive minutes in her presence and claims she is crazy. She kicks her childish husband, Paul, out of the house and he joins in the Cathy-bashing, calling his wife cruel.

At certain moments, each of these criticisms is valid. When it comes to the lifestyle choices of her trash-eating brother, Cathy is a bit judgmental. Chasing down her son’s bus with a paintball gun to keep him from going away to camp, Cathy is more than a bit crazy. And when she tells off Andrea, Cathy is every bit cruel.

Cruel, crazy and judgmental she may be, Cathy is strangely human in the vulnerable, relatable and (dare I say it?) likeable sense of the word. She makes light of her disease with her doctor, she chooses not to tell her family about the diagnosis and somehow we understand. We understand that Cathy’s catty remarks and erratic behavior (building a swimming pool in her front yard and sunbathing naked in her backyard, for example) are rooted in something painful and serious even if we rarely see it, and even if Showtime has decided that to promote “The Big C” as a comedy.

Mostly, this is Linney. In grace, in spunk, in comic timing, in dramatic tension, the actress is in a league all her own. In fact, the show is worth watching simply to observe how natural Linney appears on screen. In the most ridiculous of situations the aforementioned paintball incident, for instance Linney is utterly, even unquestionably believable. Handed a character who can’t even win the sympathy of her own family members, Linney has created a compelling and interesting person. She’s found a spirit we can empathize with lurking in the recesses of a coldhearted “skinny bitch.” She makes the show watchable, in short.

The writers have helped a bit too, of course. While the first two episodes don’t give Linney a great deal to work with to humanize her character, a scene in the third episode reveals Cathy’s fragile emotional state and the resentment she feels towards her disease. Approached by a duo of casserole-bearing cancer support group do-gooders, Cathy breaks down and addresses her illness seriously for the first time: “In case no one’s told you, cancer’s not a gift. Cancer is not a passport to a better life. Cancer is the reason I’m not going to have my life. I’m not gonna watch my son get married, I’m not gonna see my grandchildren, so excuse me for not squeezing out a smile. You know, we walk around with this grayness inside of us and you want to pretend that we’re bright and shiny and full of possibilities. Well count me out, because cancer sucks. Put that on your goddamn inspirational poster.”

Finally, Cathy stops attacking her disease with determined action in place of emotion, stops enlisting front yard swimming pools and other half-baked attempts to carpe diem as she hasn’t before. She stops belittling her disease, laughing it off as a cruel joke. And she stops ignoring it altogether. She’s sad and bitter. Linney’s voice crescendos and breaks, and suddenly, the rest of the show makes sense.

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