What would you do if you were told you only had a year to live? Would you rail against fate for this terrible injustice handed to you? Or would you do as Cathy does in The Big C and re-evaluate everything and do life your way?
In The Big C, Laura Linney plays Cathy Jamison, a wife, mother, and teacher who has been living an unremarkable existence until her illness forces her to do a one-eighty. In the course of the first two episodes, she makes choices she might never have considered in her “other life.” The swimming pool she so desperately wants to put into her too-small yard is the first sign that logic is not going to play a role in her new decisions. “I’ll pay double,” she informs the contractor when he tells her all the reasons he is unable to honor her request. Money talks and eventually the contractor finds a way. Now that a death sentence has been handed down, Cathy very quickly changes her outlook on what is left of her life.
Her husband, Paul (Oliver Platt), is a man whose inner child rules the roost. His immature ways have forced Cathy to throw him out of the house. Now he desperately wants to get back into her good graces. Their son, Adam (Gabriel Basso), is a spoiled 16-year-old who is showing all the signs of turning into his father. Cathy desperately wants to rid Adam of his attitude problem, while fostering a mother-son bond. He will not go to soccer camp, she decides, but spend the summer with her instead. To Adam’s embarrassment and confusion, she stops his camp bus by shooting it with paintballs, storms on board, and takes him home.
Father and son have no clue as to why Cathy’s changed. She hasn’t yet revealed her news to them. Whenever she starts to open up, something inside of her won’t allow her to go on.
We also meet Sean (John Benjamin Hickey), Cathy’s brother, another family member she hasn’t let in on her secret. An environmental activist, Sean is homeless by choice, spending his days standing on a soapbox, berating passersby about how they are ruining the earth. When Cathy tries to give him money so he’ll be happy, he throws it back in her face, saying the money would only serve to make her feel better. She’s not happy, he informs her, and she’s boring. The “boring” accusation seems to rankle her more than anything else.
Then there is Marlene, an elderly woman who has lived across the street from Cathy for five years. They have never spoken. When she goes behind Cathy’s back, raising objections which interrupt the construction of the pool, Cathy is livid. She storms into Marlene’s house and for the first time vents the frustrations which have surely been eating at her since her diagnosis. “I don’t have a lot of time. I wanted to teach my son the banana split and dive. Summers in Minneapolis, they are very short. They are here and then it’s over. I cannot tell you how mad that makes me.”
For the first time, we are shown how prevelant Cathy’s fear of the passage of time is in her thoughts. But her words are cathartic: she has revealed her terrible secret without giving away any pertinent details that will garner sympathy. Right now, this is how she wants it.
Two players round out this intriguing cast of characters: Andrea (Gabourey Sibide), an obese student who becomes Cathy’s “project,” and Dr. Todd Miller (Reid Scott), Cathy’s young, handsome physician (who is treating her for stage four melanoma), the only person with whom she feels comfortable.
The smell of death permeates the pilot episode: from Sean’s faking his own hanging using plastic garbage bags, to Marlene admitting she often looks forward to joining her deceased friends, to Cathy studying her death sentence — the shadows on her chest x-ray. But humor is laced through what could be a terrible downer of a show. Where there is life there is hope and where there is hope, a touch of bittersweet lives, as well.
The entire cast shines but it is Laura Linney as Cathy who truly stands out. Ms. Linney imbues her character with a strange, knowing calm. It’s difficult to notice the cracks beneath her upbeat demeanor unless you look deep (the eyes tell all), something nobody close to her ever does. In the end, she takes the safe way out, confiding the worst of her fears to Thomas, Marlene’s dog.
The questions remain: when will Cathy reveal her illness to her family and how will they treat her when she does?
The Big C is at once unpredictable, heartbreaking and uplifting. It would please me to see it have a long run but how long can a show about a stage four melanoma victim last? We’ll just have to wait and see.
The Big C was created by writer/actress/stand-up comic Diane Hunt (Platonically Incorrect, the new Beverly Hills 90210, Good Morning, Miami, Will and Grace). It airs on Showtime, Mondays at 10 PM ET.