It’s Hello Cancer, Goodbye Inhibitions

Death so often seems senseless — except on television.

Network shows almost always shroud death in veils of purpose, maybe because without them, mortality is all the more terrifying. No matter how brutally characters exit, they are killed off for a good narrative reason: so homicide detectives can seek a murderer; so doctors can try to save them; or most simply, so loved ones can find meaning in mourning.

The few series that traffic in the supernatural do so gingerly. Death on “Ghost Whisperer” is merely a passageway to a robust, anthropomorphized afterlife. And the same is true of vampire tales and other subsets of occult fiction.

“The Big C”: Laura Linney stars in this series, Monday nights on Showtime, about a high school teacher who has just learned that she has only a year to live.

“The Big C”: Laura Linney stars in this series, Monday nights on Showtime, about a high school teacher who has just learned that she has only a year to live.

“The Big C” on Showtime, which begins Monday, is about a high school teacher with incurable cancer. And that’s about it.

The absence of any defusing subplot is what makes this new series, starring Laura Linney, one of the most outré yet for “Showtime,” a cable network known for harboring marginal women with big secrets, be they Nurse Jackie and her painkillers and adultery; a closet hooker on “Secret Diary of a Call Girl”; or the ordinary wife and mom with three other identities caused by a multiple personality disorder on “United States of Tara.”

The more daring cable networks explore subjects that are too arcane or uncomfortable for network television. The act of dying, however, is trickier territory than murder, adultery, bigamy or even incest. “Six Feet Under,” on HBO, put its characters in a funeral parlor, but the series focused on the people who made their living tending to the dead. Patients on Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” do flat line, but their deaths mainly serve to explain the heroine’s drug addiction.

Those who die on crime series like “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” do so to help — or hurt — the ones left standing. Even “Dexter,” a Showtime series about a serial killer who preys, vigilante-style, on serial killers, examines an engaging psychopath’s fixation on crime and punishment, not extinction.

The high school teacher hero of AMC’s “Breaking Bad” has cancer, but even there, the action is less about his struggle with his disease than about his decision to start a rollicking life of crime as a meth dealer.

On “The Big C” Ms. Linney’s Cathy is almost refreshingly ordinary — a Minneapolis schoolteacher with a husband and child and a dull but comfortable life. Except, of course, that she too has a secret: melanoma.

The story begins after Cathy has been told she has a year to live. It is a tribute to Ms. Linney’s talent — and her body of work in movies like “Love Actually” and “The Savages” — that viewers don’t have to see for themselves that Cathy was a reserved, apologetic person before the diagnosis, the kind of dutiful worker bee who is easily silenced by stronger personalities. Ms. Linney makes it understood before uttering a word.

“The Big C” is framed as a comedy: Cathy’s imminent death sentence unleashes another, freer side of her. Suddenly, she is speaking up, except when she decides not to.

She doesn’t tell anyone about her cancer, not even her husband, Paul (Oliver Platt), or her son, Adam (Gabriel Basso), or her brother, Sean (John Benjamin Hickey), a homeless ecology nut who lives out of Dumpsters.

Instead, Cathy tells people off — including a rude and hostile student, Andrea (Gabourey Sidibe from “Precious”), who is dangerously overweight; and a reclusive and sour neighbor, Marlene (Phyllis Somerville), who is unpleasant.

Casting off a lifetime of inhibitions, Cathy flirts with her doctor, smokes a cigarette, digs a swimming pool in her yard and, in restaurants, orders only drinks and dessert.

“The Big C” isn’t just about facing death, of course; it’s also about a woman who tries to live each day as if it were the last. The paradox of dealing playfully with a subject that is so taboo is that it’s easy to slide into safe comic clichés. In “Last Holiday,” Queen Latifah played a meek department store clerk who, when told she has a year to live, moves to a luxury hotel in Europe and savors life, delicious food and telling people exactly what she thinks.

That film was a romantic comedy with a happy ending: Queen Latifah’s character was misdiagnosed. “The Big C” is unlikely to let Cathy magically off the hook.

Accordingly, the series is at its best when sardonic and subdued. Some of the black humor is the kind that cancer patients are prone to share among themselves. Impolitic truth telling is more broadly amusing, and plenty of movies have toyed with the comedy of characters who can’t stop telling the truth, notably “Liar, Liar” and “The Invention of Lying.” Cathy is funniest when she speaks her mind.

“The Big C” works because most of the writing is strong and believable, and so is Ms. Linney, who rarely sounds a false note and here has perfect pitch.

But perhaps because the subject is so challenging, the creators took some easy shortcuts in casting other characters. Mr. Platt as Paul is childish and egotistical and very much like the childish and egotistical husband he played in Nicole Holofcener’s recent film, “Please Give.” Before playing crusty, solitary Marlene, Ms. Somerville played crusty, solitary May in the movie “Little Children.”

Ms. Linney has the harder task of portraying the kind of reserved, reticent woman she has played in the past, but one who suddenly gets, as her brother puts it, “her weird back.”

It’s a credit to the actress, and the writers, that the weirder Cathy gets, the more likable she becomes.

THE BIG C

Showtime, Monday nights at 10:30, Eastern and Pacific times; 9:30, Central time.

Created by Darlene Hunt; Ms. Hunt, Jenny Bicks, Neal H. Moritz, Vivian Cannon and Laura Linney, executive producers; Mark Kunerth, Michael Engler and Merrill H. Karpf, co-executive producers. Produced by Sony Pictures Television Inc.

WITH: Laura Linney (Cathy), Oliver Platt (Paul), John Benjamin Hickey (Sean), Phyllis Somerville (Marlene), Gabriel Basso (Adam), Gabourey Sidibe (Andrea), Idris Elba (Lenny) and Reid Scott (Dr. Todd).

source: tv.nytimes.com

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