'The Big C' proves laughter is always the best medicine

By Tatiana Craine

Showtime is bringing edgy back. Over the past few years, the cable network has worked meticulously to bring audiences stories about people on the fringe and the newest addition to the rag tag bunch is in good company. From the network that introduced audiences to a pot-dealing suburban mother in “Weeds,” a cheeky call girl in “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” libidinous royals in “The Tudors,” serial killers in “Dexter,” a hedonist writer in “Californication” and a mom with dissociative identity disorder in “United States of Tara,” comes a dark comedy about a woman with cancer. There’s nothing funny about cancer, and a large part of the world has been touched in one way or another by the disease. Sometimes, if caught early, cancer can be beaten into submission and eradicated. Other times it strikes hard and fast like a reckless teen driver in a hurry. However cancer hits, it always hurts, and it’s always tough. For everyone involved.

And that’s why Showtime’s newest show is so intriguing.

It’s not about laughing off cancer only to be blind-sided when the disease takes its often inevitable toll. It’s not about needing forty tissues to sop up watery emotional drama. It’s about dealing with life’s complications–whether it’s a crumbling marriage, unruly children or the C word.

“The Big C” follows Minneapolis schoolteacher and mother Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney) as she grapples with her newly diagnosed stage IV melanoma. Much of the show’s drama comes from her dealing with people, not the impending treatment, since Cathy decides to keep her condition under wraps. Cathy’s clueless but good-hearted husband (Oliver Platt) cannot please his distanced wife. Like any teenager, her son hates his mother’s guts. Though Cathy doesn’t expect her oncologist to find a cure, she asks him sarcastically at every visit about it, showing her vague sense of hope while she battles the disease nearly alone.

To cope, Cathy tries in vain to recreate her favorite childhood memories. Her curmudgeonly neighbor quashes her efforts to build a pool-only after she digs a pool-sized hole in her small yard. Cathy also attempts to get her teenage son to relive the golden days by riding a tandem bicycle to the soft-serve ice cream shop to no avail. The cancerous spot growing on Cathy’s back remains an ever-present reminder that the blonde Mid-westerner has a ticking clock that’s programmed far too fast for her liking.

Sometimes Cathy makes it difficult for audiences to fully identify with her anal-retentive busybody self, but Linney delivers a superb performance as a conflicted and complex character with about as many hang-ups as anyone with their health. She carries the show on talented shoulders with an acting career spanning nearly two decades. However, “The Big C” relies heavily on its supporting cast to deliver the laughs and heart that Cathy so desperately tries to give. Gabourey Sidibe, star of “Precious,” plays Andrea, Cathy’s overweight student trying to lose the pounds with monetary help from her teacher. Her performance, though a little forced at times, proffers a look at Cathy’s deep desire to save whomever she can from death. Cathy’s earth-loving brother makes a few appearances, spouting radical ideas about global warming and gas-guzzling SUVs.

When Andrea finds out Cathy’s brother eats mostly found-food and wheels a rickety grocery cart around, she chuckles, “I’m fat and you’ve got a brother that eats trash.” Cathy responds plainly and truthfully, “Everybody’s got something,” which taps into the heart of the show-the fight to attain perfection.

So “The Big C” isn’t a conventional comedy. None of Showtime’s shows are. And let’s face it, who’s really after sit-coms these days? Audiences are after story lines and characters that deliver the goods with depth, wit and charm. “The Big C” dishes out unrelenting gallows humor with incredible success since the show had the highest ratings for a series premiere on Showtime in the last eight years. And though Cathy’s battle with melanoma leaves her hanging in a time-suspended limbo, one thing’s for sure-“The Big C” is a big hit.