When Laura Linney's character Cathy is diagnosed with terminal cancer in the pilot of Showtime's new series The Big C, she puts her foot down. "I want onions to be a major part of my life in the next year," she tells her husband, for whom she swore off the vegetables because he thought they were "stinky poopoo."
Cathy—a teacher—is concealing her disease from her family and friends, channeling all its encompassing emotions in various seize-the-day episodes of acting out: spontaneously digging a whole in her backyard for a pool she's always wanted, setting her ugly couch on fire, and telling an overweight, troublemaking student that she can only be either "fat and jolly or a skinny bitch." The half hour, which premieres tonight (you can watch here now), is at once warmly relatable and darkly humorous; a series of deadpanned one-liners, sight gags, and quirky characters orbiting around a woman who is silently dealing with the reality of terminal illness.
It's a formula that Showtime knows very well. When the trailer for The Big C premiered Gawker ran an article with a headline reading, "Showtime Cornering the Market on 'Ladies With Problems' Shows." It's a pretty inarguable statement about the network that airs Weeds, Nurse Jackie, United States of Tara, and The Secret Diary of a Call Girl (Mary-Louise Parker as a pot-dealing mom, Edie Falco as a prescription-addicted nurse, Toni Collette as a mother with multiple personalities, and Billie Piper as an escort, respectively). The Big C makes the fifth Showtime series cooked from largely the same recipe—a comedy/drama hybrid, written and run largely by women, revolving around a sarcastic, worn-down-by-life matriarch. Then, as Gawker points out, there's the "problem": a pill habit, drug dealing, Dissociative Identity Disorder, or in this case, cancer. Even Showtime's chief executive Matthew Blank acknowledges the network's reputation, calling Linney's role another "classic Showtime character."
While it's easy to joke about Showtime's cookie-cutter mold, it's an undeniably successful formula for them. It's paid off with Emmy nominations for each of its leading ladies (and a win for Collette), plus a surprise Best Comedy Series nod for Nurse Jackie this year. In fact, all numbers confirm that Showtime's programming strategy is working. The network reached 22 million subscribers in 2009, and racked up more awards than other station.