Monday, August 16, 2010

Cautiously Optimistic About The Big C

Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney) worries about being too boring early in tonight’s 10:30 premiere of the Showtime series dark comedy about a woman dealing with cancer in her own way, “The Big C.”

But have no fear -- this series with the potentially uncomfortable subject matter is never boring. Strained perhaps, but not boring.

That’s largely due to the astonishing, life-affirming performance of Linney, who may be best known around here for the Academy-Award nomination she received for her performance in “The Savages” as the daughter of an elderly man she and her brother brought home to a Buffalo nursing home.

It can be debated whether trying to find comedy from a cancer diagnosis is appropriate – especially by those who have fought the disease or know loved ones who have. I have a very close friend who understandably wouldn’t consider watching the show for that very reason.

But there is no debating that Linney sparkles as Cathy, a tightly-wound schoolteacher whose diagnosis leads her to live life to the fullest and change her behavior with her emotionally-challenged and childish loved ones and strangers.

“The Big C” is another Showtime series starring a big name actress that deals with independent women. But this one is different from Edie Falco’s “Nurse Jackie” and Mary Louise Parker’s “Weeds” in that Linney’s character is much more sympathetic and easier to love.

A Minneapolis school teacher, Cathy is surrounded by an exceptional cast of quirky characters – some would say too quirky -- who are much more interesting than she is on the surface.

Her husband Paul (Oliver Platt, in a role he practically invented) is a child who drives a motor scooter and steadfastly avoids eating onions. Her teenage son Adam (Gabriel Basso) is a spoiled brat and practical joker. Her brother Sean (John Benjamin Hickey) is into liberal causes and eating trash.

The cast also includes a smart-aleck student with a salty tongue, Andrea (Gabourey Sidibe of “Precious” fame); A handsome, caring young doctor played by Reid Scott (“My Boys”); and a contentious neighbor, Marlene (Phyllis Somerville), who has a dog and initially no need for human friendship.

Cathy’s interaction with this group of mostly misfits (except the doctor) leads to the show’s humor. The material isn’t laugh out-loud funny, but symbolically and darkly humorous.

The most troublesome aspect of the first three episodes concerns Cathy’s decision to keep her cancer from her loved ones, who therefore misunderstand and battle her new attitude. However, Cathy’s choice can be viewed as a reflection of her inability to let loose and share things even with those she loves.

Perhaps by the end of the first season’s seven-episode run, Cathy will have come out of her protective shell and realize that sharing can be one of life’s best coping mechanisms.

It also isn’t until the third episode that Cathy expresses any strong anger about having terminal Stage Four melanoma. Until then, she largely deals with the diagnosis in a cheerful, smiling, self-deprecating way that appears to be her primary way of coping.

The series isn’t a tearjerker. Cathy’s actions don’t always make sense and the behavior of her quirky loved ones can become more than a little annoying.

But have no fear of the subject matter. “The Big C” celebrates life with one of America’s greatest actresses.

Rating: 2 and a half stars out of 4

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