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TV Review: The Big C: Hereafter Begs the Question Why not Forever After?

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The Big C was always a little bit of an anomoly in a TV market saturated with shows whose finales boast dramatic turn-of-events shocker theatrics in the hopes of keeping their fan base intact. For a show tackling the weighty “C” and sentencing its title character (a woman, at that) to a terminal illness, real drama was already baked into the core of the show’s foundation.

Waiting for the grim reaper.

Waiting for the grim reaper.

And yet even knowing the ending, I turned in week after week to watch the ups and downs of Cathy, played by Laura Linney, as she grappled with making sense of her situation and its impact on her family – not only her inability to care for them in the way she would have wanted to in the time she had left but ultimately not being around to meddle in their lives in the way that would seem intended for moms, sisters, and wives.

A natural caregiver, Cathy would do anything for her family. In time, we came to see and feel what Cathy experienced for her family – sincere appreciation and gratitude. Her husband, son, brother, and “adopted” daughter all added a layer of authenticity to Cathy’s journey – their reactions to her struggles mirrored ours and when faced the adversity and peverseness of what cards had been dealt to them they still managed to crack us up week after week.

If you stick to the premise of this show being about Cathy then it’s only fitting that her death and the show’s end be intertwined. The final moments of the show are centered around Cathy’s conversation with her therapist (played by a svelte Kathy Najimy) in which she envisions the afterlife – a sunny place where she can swim freely, without the constraints of her cancer, and wait for her loved ones to join her. Cathy leaves this world feeling at peace with herself and fulfilled by all the loose endings she’s managed to tie- including a last-minute reconcilation with her father (Brian Dennehy in his signature tough guy, “man-of-few words” style). Felt a bit contrived, but it was keeping her from getting on, so to speak.

What feels insincere about this show ending is that it was never just about the cancer killing Cathy. Fundamentally, this show was about how cancer lives and breathes within the family unit – a lifeform all its own. The imprint of cancer, afterall, for anyone who’s experienced it or watched a love one die from it, is felt on more than the person it inflicts – it’s the legacy it leaves the living. I’d love to have seen Paul, Sean, Adam, and Andrea show us what living with loss looks like – a day out , 6 months out, a year out. Now that would have been compelling TV.

I saw Laura Linney in an interview recently critiquing society’s obsession with being young and measures they inflict on themselves to stay that way. In particular she commented on what she felt The Big C brought to that conversation. “We forget that aging is a priviledge.” Cathy not being able to experience this honor, at the very least it would have been nice to see her family’s ever after.

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About Beth Gottfried