Laura Linney is so good on The Big C that she makes the flaws in the rest of the show seem larger than they are. As Cathy Jamison, a 42-year-old suburban Minneapolis high school teacher diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma, Linney scrupulously avoids any trace of showy emotionalism. Or at least as much as she can, given that the scripts in the three episodes I’ve seen really want us to view Cathy as a brave, intelligent woman who’s determined not to lose control, which means we’re supposed to constantly think she’s poignant and tragic. As a hook for a TV series, cancer is tricky: The instant-sympathy factor is a quality the show has to alternately play up (so that you’re invested in the character) and play down (so that you don’t feel either manipulated into getting invested in the character or so bummed you change the channel).
As created by writer?exec producer Darlene Hunt, Cathy is an essentially closedoff, uptight person who is emotionally liberated by her disease. Which means we’re supposed to be charmed when she tells a waiter, ”I’m just having desserts and liquor,” or sunbathes in the nude (the ”old” Cathy was a bit of a prude, you know). When her ex-husband ( Oliver Platt) coaxes her into accompanying him to couples therapy in hopes of a reconciliation, she rises from the sofa in midsession, saying she prefers to spend time with a vanilla latte. What a free spirit! we’re supposed to think. How rude! is what the therapist and I thought.
My big problem with The Big C concerns a crucial decision the show made for the early episodes: Cathy declines to tell those closest to her that she has cancer. While this is one of the many different reactions people have to such a diagnosis in real life, in a comedy-drama like this, it makes everyone around her seem a bit dim. Surely her surly teen son (Gabriel Basso) and the assiduously wacky ex-husband must think something’s causing Cathy’s abrupt change in behavior, no? I mean, why would a woman who’s spent her life being a cautious neatnik suddenly insist that her entire backyard be dug up to make way for a large in-ground swimming pool? But no, everyone around Cathy just comes off as a self-absorbed dope.
Gabourey Sidibe has some fun playing Andrea, one of Cathy’s favorite students, even if the dialogue makes her character slide into Sassy Girl clichés a bit too frequently for comfort. But there’s no doubt that Linney is radiant in her role. She carries The Big C past many of its implausibilities and irritations. Maybe her Showtime neighbor, Nancy Botwin from Weeds, will show up to sell Cathy some medical marijuana. B