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

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Showtime


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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Showtime

"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?

Presented by

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

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