Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Big C Review

The Big C premiered on Showtime last year, telling the story of a Minneapolis mother, wife, and high school teacher Cathy Jamison who gets diagnosed (off screen and before we meet her) with stage IV melanoma, and thus decides to lead her life as fully as possible in the time she has left.

Believe it or not it's a comedy, or at least a drama that makes you laugh and studiously avoids any crushing sentimentality. Even if it were purely a vehicle for Laura Linney I would have watched it in a heartbeat, but as it turns out, it's a well-written show with a lot of heart.

The second season began a couple weeks ago, and by all accounts they're maintaining their high level of quality. More after the jump. (I'm doing Jumps now!)

The showrunners have expressed a desire to do 5 seasons of the show, each one mirroring a season in Cathy's life (the first one being Summer, this current one being Fall, etc.) In addition, each would have a vague theme, reflecting the psychological status of Cathy herself. These themes would be based off that whole Kubler-Ross model that everyone knows, so season 1 was Denial, and now we're getting into Anger.

The simplicity and neatness of that kind of production plan--knowing where the story is going, how long it will last and how it well get there--is emblematic of the way this show is made. The Big C is remarkably easy to watch, considering its subject matter, and each episode is over too quickly.

Obviously a lot of this has to do with Laura Linney. The consummate actress, she is pitch-perfect as the "everywoman" struggling with her mortality, regretting the way she's lived and changing what she can in the moment. After years of a tame, fairly repressed life fulfilling the roles of steady wife to an eccentric, spontaneous husband, disciplined mother to an apathetic teenage son, and consistent teacher to even-more-apathetic teenage students, Cathy's diagnosis causes a chain reaction in her perspective.

She sees her husband as oppressive, his inability to ever change or grow up or truly help her in life becomes too much to handle, and thus, without explanation (for most of the entire first season, no one around her knows she has cancer) she kicks him out of the house. She sees her son Adam as a testament to her failed parenting; unable to cook and clean for himself, ignorant on how to treat women, and woefully cut off from his feelings. Similarly her job appears pointless, and she discards teaching American History, instead focusing on what she thinks these kids should know: how to write a thank you note and avoid unwanted pregnancy.

Of course, these things aren't her failures, or even out of the ordinary. Everything just appears more clear to her now, crystallized by the time limit she's been given. Naturally she rebels against this. Once timid, Cathy grows increasingly assertive. She cashes out her 401K and spends money on whims, orders liquor and dessert for dinner, and even has an affair with the magnetic Idris Elba.

Linney's portrayal is always on point. If it were needed, and it's not, her love for her son Adam is her most humanizing characteristic. Watching him grow, lamenting his unknown future that she won't be a part of, and relishing his proximity, even when he "hates" her, as 14year old boys are known to do on occasion to inexplicably clingy mothers.

The interesting part is, Cathy is not always likable. Yes, if one were offered an affair with Idris Elba, it would be hard for one to say No, but still--at one point they do ecstasy and make love in the backyard of her home. That, coupled with her keeping the cancer a secret for months from her loved ones (and making them look a bit dull to the audience) paints her as sporadically callous and selfish. Yes, there were years of selflessness to make up for. Yes, she is terminal and that can explain many absurd, destructive, spontaneous actions. But it doesn't change the nature of them.

It's a testament to Linney that we still care for her, that we continue to struggle to understand her and what she's going through. And anytime our patience wears thin, or she goes a bit far, one of her supporting characters either finds out the secret or does something of their own volition to show she is loved. Thus, we have a reason to keep loving her. (Or, upon hearing of the affair, her neighbor and friend and confidante Marlene slaps her, thus diffusing our judgment.)

Of course, Linney isn't entirely flawless (though close.) In the beginning, most noticeably in the pilot when she monologues from the couch in her recently-dug pool hole, Linney reverts to what I can only call "theatre acting." That is, the kind of acting that doesn't translate so naturally to film and television. She is over-emotive, with chuckles and volume shifts, and pregnant pauses. The monologue itself is rather cheesy, so that may have something to do with it, but a scene that seems as if it would have translated poignantly on Broadway doesn't work well on Showtime.

However that only happens early on and infrequently. Linney finds her stride and does fantastic work, showing us confusion, joy, excitement, rage, everything you can think of. And it's not just entertaining as a study of human nature, it's FUN. A show about cancer that makes you laugh, that's full of bright colors and positive messages and the appreciation of the things we've been blessed with.

After all,  apparently when the writers describe the show they say "it's not a show about dying, it's a show about living."And this is so true, in fact, that while we never forget the presence of cancer (it is the premise after all) we often forget how serious Cathy's illness truly is. I imagine as the seasons continue it will be harder to avoid physical portrayals of the disease's severity, but for now this show has only made me cry once (quite an achievement for the guy who was sobbing before the Star Trek movie credits even came on screen) and that was in the ridiculously beautiful scene when Adam discovers a secret storage locker where Cathy has been compiling Birthday and Christmas presents for every future year of his life that she will not be around for.

Fortunately, Linney is not the only fine actor on the show. Oliver Platt gives us a hilarious, loving, bumbling husband and father, who consistently says and does the wrong thing. His blunders display a good heart though, and give us a real marriage that must involve compromise and change. Her bipolar brother challenges her identity regularly and shows us how hard, and hilarious, it is to connect with those closest to us. Gabourey Sidibe represents the perceived failures of Cathy's teaching career, and the true desire she has to change lives and help a child in need find guidance. Cathy's neighbor Marlene provides an illustration of Cathy's changed interpersonal relations and a source of quiet wisdom and comfort. Guest stars like Cynthia Nixon, Idris Elba and now Alan Alda also show the new boldness in Cathy's character, as well her extreme need for comfort and strength wherever she can find it. (One can only imagine what Parker Posey's upcoming role will be, though it's safe to assume she'll be awesome.)

Tightly plotted, sharply written, emotional, incisive, and above all fun, The Big C is cable television at its best.

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