'The Big C': How Long Can We Laugh at Cancer?



The first season of Showtime's The Big C asks us to laugh in the face of death. The new fall show, part drama and part comedy, begins with 42-year-old Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney), suburban wife and history teacher, being diagnosed with terminal cancer. A problem, yes, but more than a problem: an opportunity.

As the opening episodes established, Cathy has to come to terms with far more than the prospect of death. What she really confronts in the 13 episodes of the first season is the question, "Do you think I'm boring?"

Boring, in the world of The Big C, is the real cardinal sin.

In the face of death, Cathy most assuredly is not boring. We've now seen that she can push away her husband, carry on two affairs, befriend her most obnoxious, overweight student and her cantankerous neighbor, reconnect with an estranged friend, sunbathe in the nude, and embrace every spontaneous decision that comes to mind. "I'm just having desserts and liquor," our protagonist proudly declares early on in the show. Has cancer ever been so liberating and fun?

And yet...the clock is ticking. Cathy Jamison is going to die, a fact that has driven much of the show's tension as she slowly reveals her diagnosis to the people around. The revelation had an intimacy throughout these early episodes, with great significance placed on the few who knew (the friendly Dr. Todd, her Alzheimer's-afflicted elderly neighbor Marlene). The audience was left in constant suspense about when the other characters in her life would learn the verdict and how their already fragile relationships would transform. Halfway through the season, Cathy tells her homeless brother about the condition only to burst out laughing—never fear, she assures him, it's all a joke! Even when other characters do learn of her cancer, the show manages to play their reactions for laughs, as when her husband Paul (Oliver Platt) begins to shave off his own hair with the promise to be her "bald twin."

Comedically the show succeeds. Linney's brilliance as an actress, established in feature films such as The Squid and The Whale and The Savages, allows her to transmit countless dimensions through her features and successfully remain sympathetic and compelling in most any role—even when it's the forced smile of a cancer patient gone wild. All the angst is glossed over in her laugh and maniacal thoughtfulness.

As the first season ends however, a big question looms—how long can we keep laughing about cancer?

So far no actual health problems have torpedoed Cathy's life. Cancer exists more as a conceit, a convenient McGuffin floating in the background and used to empower her. The biggest material drawback of cancer is the lump she feels when having sex with a painter named Lenny (The Wire's Idris Elba). Her present lack of symptoms allows her to be so outwardly blasé about her disease, a cavalier attitude which troubles the other characters in her life. Near the end of the debut season, Cathy ventures to Canada with the infinitely charming oncologist Dr. Todd to visit a half-baked, bee-obsessed healer played by Liam Neeson. A few drinks and dance moves later, and she and the doctor find themselves kissing and caught up in confessional honesty.

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John Hendel is a writer based in Washington, DC, and a former producer at The Atlantic.

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