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



"You shouldn't joke so much about dying," Dr. Todd tells her.

"It's better than crawling into bed with a fifth of vodka," Cathy replies in her consistently flip manner. "Aw, am I going to pop your death cherry?"

Yet despite Cathy's irony and dismissal, the moment is hardly funny. These final episodes already bring more of the sincere emotion that it seems the show will, by necessity, have to shift to as Cathy's cancer takes center stage. Showtime has renewed The Big C for a second season of thirteen episodes, and the cancer will keep growing. But how can it stay the same show? The concept and tone will have to change enormously as the disease develops. No longer could comedic hijinks guide the tone in subsequent seasons, at least not in the same way. The show's initial strength has been precisely that blending of dramatic and comedic tones—Cathy's underlying turmoil, ignored and submerged as she wryly and amusingly plunges into wild actions done for her own sake and impulse in a way the woman never has (nor will have any future chances to). The first season's moments depict the calm before the storm. Her actions generate narrative electricity and sympathy, despite the outrageous and even unethical nature of some of her behavior. No boundaries, social or physical, stop Cathy in her current incarnation. This is a woman who sits down with her teenage son to critique the pornography on his laptop, after all.

The danger is that without Cathy's free-spirited health, strength, and liberation so apparent in the first season, the show could descend into maudlin and distinctly unpleasant territory. Romantic entanglements cannot reasonably continue with the feistiness this premiere season displays. The ironic playfulness of Cathy cannot be expected to endure now that her family members know about the cancer and she begins to accept their support. What narrative device can keep this from becoming a painful and clichéd cancer journey? AMC's Breaking Bad also features a protagonist diagnosed with terminal cancer who has somehow survived till a fourth season; while Walter White's lung cancer is in remission, however, Cathy, likely has fewer than two years to live. For her, the effects of cancer and its dramatic vacuum will seemingly arrive sooner and more significantly. In last night's season finale, Cathy begins treatment, yes, but the process involves her going out ugly—scabs, hallucinations, nausea, and what promises to be a new season full of pain.

An August New Yorker article alluded to the "pat, familiar quirkiness to The Big C that keeps you at a remove from it, and too many easy appeals to your emotions." Indeed, the show displays a certain insecurity common in much contemporary television, film, and literature—an inability to commit to any one tone, to always waver between irony and sincerity, between the underlying trauma and horror of her impending death and the need to laugh above it all. As a drama alone, The Big C fails. Despite a great supporting cast, the episodes were never about them and never motivated by them dramatically.

Cathy, supported by Linney's acting and the character's pioneering, awkward independence, drives the tone and personality of the show, which, given the allure of the moment in which we enter Cathy's life, may be achieving its apex at the outset. Because as Cathy begins dying, how can The Big C remain a comedy?

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

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