Let's see a show of hands from everyone who was completely put off by the announcement Showtime was going to have a comedy series with terminal cancer as the theme. If there was ever an idea that seemed like a bad one from the start this was it. Still, the people behind the project forged ahead and the result is The Big C starring Laura Linney.
From the first few episodes I previewed, the show is not a flat out comedy but more a dramedy. It takes the subject matter seriously but then injects some humor into the situation at hand. Linney plays Cathy Jamison, a high school teacher who learns she has terminal cancer in the form of melanoma. She has a life expectancy of one to two years.
When the series starts she knows about the cancer but she hasn't told anyone else. She and her husband Paul (Oliver Platt) are separated, and she and her fourteen year old son Adam (Gabriel Basso) are somewhat estranged. Some of this is caused by her new outlook on life. While dying she doesn't want to be the same old dull person she used to be.
Two bright spots in her life are her "homeless person" brother Sean (John Benjamin Hickey). He lives on the streets and rages about global warming and toxic fumes among other things. Cathy and he have a combative but loving relationship. Then there is Andrea (Gabourey Sidibe), an overweight student that she decides to help. Andrea is smart-mouthed and enjoyable.
Her neighbor Marlene (Phyllis Somerville) isn't a bright spot but she is interesting and Cathy wants to fill her life with interesting people. Marlene has suffered through the death of her husband and how she endured fascinates Cathy.
At present this is not a depressing show even though the impact of Cathy's ultimate demise does sneak in from time to time. You have to wonder how the show will handle the eventual deterioration of her health. Now that could get depressing.
What makes the show appealing, if a show about cancer could be said to be appealing, is the snappy and in some cases ironic dialogue. It also helps that these lines are delivered by a superbly talented cast with Linney being the star performer. This actress can interpret any and every character thrown at her and she gives Cathy a freakish view of her health as well as a variety of emotions concerning what life has dealt her.
The secret weapon for the show is Sidibe. She makes Andrea smart and sassy, one hundred and eighty degrees from her title role in Precious. Few actors can stand up to talent like Linney's but Sidibe matches her snap for snap in scene after scene. You want to see more of her and learn more about her character. Hopefully in upcoming episodes we will.
It will be worth watching this series just to see how they handle the progression of her illness and its impact on her family and her friends. It may get so intense in the future that audiences will be turned off but then again it might maintain the pace and level of humor it has in the early episodes and draw an even bigger crowd.
However they handle it, watching Linney and Sidibe is worth the effort. They keep it real but make it entertaining.
The Big C premieres on SHOWTIME, Monday, August 16 at 10:30 PM (ET).