But 'The Big C' (10:30PM ET Monday, Showtime) is so manipulative and contrived that it tends to shoot itself in the foot in that regard, despite the fact that the very talented Laura Linney is the show's star.
Linney can play vulnerability like nobody's business, and she occasionally gets chances to do that in this "comedy." But the actress also has a brittle side, one that 'The Big C' unwisely plays up more than it should, and the show's supporting characters are often either wasted or trapped in predictable story lines.
The end result is that, despite the fact that I'm a huge fan of Linney, 'The Big C' irritated me more frequently than it got me interested in the present and future of cancer patient Cathy Jamison.
There have been a few improvements since I stopped watching the show about halfway through its first season. 'The Big C' has reined in the hammier side of Oliver Platt, who plays Cathy's husband, Paul, and Alan Alda, who makes a one-time appearance in the second episode of the season, is terrific as an in-demand melanoma specialist.
Yet Cathy's tentative friendship with her previous cancer doctor, Dr. Mauer (Reid Scott), was one of the best things about the first season. With Dr. Mauer, the uptight Cathy was able to not just talk about her fears but also relax and flirt a little. The fact that Cathy and Dr. Mauer (who appears briefly in the first episode of season 2) liked each other as more than just doctor and patient was an interesting and ambiguous grey area for the show, and the actors appeared to enjoy playing off their natural chemistry.
But ambiguity and subtlety aren't really of interest to 'The Big C.' Cancer is a big topic, and too often the show's response is to attack it with anvils. The busy pace tends to add to the sense that the show doesn't actually want to dwell on the central reality of Cathy's life -- that this (very healthy looking woman) could die soon. Not that it should be a festival of grimness focusing obsessively on that fact, but I get the sense that 'The Big C' doesn't actually have much to say about mortality, so it dances around the topic, hoping to distract the viewer with a lot of incidents, confrontations and superficial "wisdom."
The most frustrating thing about 'The Big C' is that there are a few good scenes here and there that serve as reminders that the show could have been more than just another product of the Showtime women-in-crisis/awards-bait assembly line. Yet the prognosis is not promising for a show -- a would-be dark comedy, no less -- that makes a character spout the line "We're not patients, we're people!"
The most inexplicable thing about 'The Big C' is the amount of screen time it gives to Cathy's manic-depressive brother, Sean (John Benjamin Hickey), and his narcissistic girlfriend, the one-dimensional yuppie Rebecca (Cynthia Nixon). Nixon and Hickey are good actors, and Sean's strident side has been toned down a bit, but the characters' relationship issues -- the mildly ditzy Rebecca is pregnant and Sean's wary of going back on medication for his condition -- aren't particularly compelling.
Perhaps their self-absorption is supposed to serve as a backdrop for Cathy's virtuous qualities, but these two people should be interesting in their own right. They're not, and there's a Sean story in episode 4 (my least favorite of the four Showtime sent for review) that is maddeningly obvious in every possible way.
The show also struggles to give something meaningful to Gabourey Sidibe to do. She plays Andrea, one of the students at the high school where Cathy teaches, and though her acerbic asides occasionally hit the mark, Andrea appears to be in Cathy's orbit to remind her that she is brave. The scenes with Cathy's teen son are similarly forgettable, and Paul gets his share of sigh-inducing moments as well (early in one episode, Paul tells Cathy that he "doesn't miss" sex. One guess as to where that plot goes.)
According to the show's press notes, this season Cathy has moved past denial and is going through the "anger" stage of accepting her illness, so there are a lot of conflicts and confrontations, but most of the show's aggressiveness -- not to mention its forays into aggressive quirkiness -- feels somewhat forced and doesn't resonate on an emotional level. Having a character and her family deal with a potentially fatal illness is such a rich arena for both drama and black comedy, but so far, 'The Big C' hasn't been able to mine that topic with consistent freshness and depth.
I think I've reached the acceptance stage with this show -- I've accepted that despite the flashes of Linney's talent, Cathy's health crisis is not for me.
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