STAMFORD, Conn. — Laura Linney wasn’t looking to do a television series when the pitch came in from Showtime last year.
“I was just sort of going about my life, and series television had never been in the equation,” said the 46-year-old actress, best known for her work in theater and independent films such as “You Can Count on Me” and “The Savages.” “It’s too tame most of the time.”
But the script sent over by Robert Greenblatt, then the network’s president of entertainment, was certainly not cautious material. It centered on an uptight suburban teacher who had just been handed a terminal cancer diagnosis. Oh, and it was a dramedy.
Linney was intrigued. “It was just dealing with all the questions and issues that I had been encountering on a daily basis,” she said on a recent afternoon, sitting in her sparse dressing room in a low-slung industrial building that houses the set for “The Big C” on the edge of downtown Stamford. When asked to be more specific, she paused for a long time, staring off into the distance.
“Time,” she said simply, focusing her intense blue eyes on her guest. “What it is and how much do we have and what do we do with it. Really something that highlighted the privilege of aging.”
Linney cringes a bit at the moniker “cancer comedy” that has been affixed to “The Big C” but admitted that “there is something wonderfully impossible about the idea of a show that is comedic that deals with cancer. I tend to choose stuff that’s not that easy to pull off.”
She has plenty to grapple with in the 13-episode Showtime series, which premieres Aug. 16. When we meet her character, Cathy Jamison, she seems shaken awake by the news that she has Stage IV melanoma. Instead of sharing the diagnosis with her fun-loving but flighty husband (Oliver Platt), from whom she’s recently separated, she begins to act out in ways startling to herself and the people around her, including a hard-to-reach student played by Gabourey Sidibe.
It’s the latest unorthodox dramedy from Showtime, which has carved out a distinctive niche with a slate of programming that marries dark themes with wry comedy. “The Big C” joins three other series fronted by flawed, impulsive women: “Weeds,” “Nurse Jackie” and “The United States of Tara.”
Whether viewers have an appetite for another quirky character behaving in an outre fashion remains to be seen. And launching a show with cancer as the driving narrative force presents its own hurdles. The cable channel has taken a typically irreverent approach in marketing “The Big C”: Promos feature Linney sipping a cocktail as she lounges next to a sandcastle inside an hourglass, using a beach ball to try to stop the sand from draining away.
“I think the lead character is a classic Showtime character,” said Matthew Blank, the network’s chief executive. “When you say ‘challenging, risky endeavor,’ we say, ‘Yeah!’ If we’re able to do it successfully, it just keeps pounding home what premium TV is supposed to be.”
Many live with it
Cancer is a well-worn trope on television dramas, so much so that the disease almost feels ubiquitous in prime time. Major characters on “Brothers & Sisters,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Lost,” “Breaking Bad,” “Desperate Housewives” and “90210” have all coped with cancer in recent seasons.
But it is far rarer to find a comedy that has tackled the topic. “All in the Family” ventured into the terrain with a 1973 episode in which Edith found a lump in her breast. One of the few sitcoms to do so since then was “Murphy Brown,” whose protagonist, played by Candice Bergen, battled breast cancer in the show’s final season. “There haven’t been a lot, for obvious reasons,” said Marc Flanagan, who was the executive producer of “Murphy Brown” then and recalls that the writers took great pains to find the right balance of pathos and humor.
“I think when people hear ‘cancer comedy,’ their antennas go up and they say, ‘Wait a minute, there’s nothing funny about cancer. There’s nothing funny about dying,’” said Jenny Bicks (“Men in Trees,” “Sex and the City”), executive producer and show runner of “The Big C.” “But the truth is, there’s a ton of high comedy inherent in any situation where you’re right on the line. There’s a very fine line between tragedy and comedy, and they cross over a lot.”
Bicks knows firsthand: She successfully battled breast cancer a decade ago. She channeled the experience as a writer on “Sex and the City,” penning the story about Samantha’s bout with breast cancer, and was drawn to the opportunity to write about it again in a comedic vein. “I thought this was such a great way of using it and finding the voice to tell it that doesn’t feel maudlin or bad-TV-movie,” she said.
While the show has a lighthearted tone, the story line is still undergirded by medical research. An oncologist from City of Hope consults on the script, and all the shows’ writers are either cancer survivors or have loved ones who have battled the disease.
Bicks envisions each season reflecting one of the five stages of grief, the first being denial. “I anticipate people will feel uncomfortable, and they should, in some ways,” she said. “We are not going to take the safe route through telling this story. We’re not going to make believe that there’s a magic bullet that’s going to cure her. But at the same time, we’re not going to shy away from her doing some fairly outrageous things because of the situation she’s in.”
For her part, Linney said she hasn’t been preoccupied with calibrating the right balance between humor and drama.
“I think there just has to be a trust of the universal thing that people hook into about how helpless we all are in the running out of time and how we desperately try to fight it — there’s something comical just in that,” she said. “Just that crazy hubris can be downright entertaining.”
In the premiere, Cathy impulsively decides to dig up her lawn and put in a swimming pool and tells her bewildered husband that she is no longer willing to forgo eating onions because he hates them.
Her cast mates say Linney brings warmth to a character that, in someone else’s hands, could be brittle and polarizing. “She’s highly relatable, and I just think there’s a goodness to her bandwidth that allows her to get away with things,” Platt said.
John Benjamin Hickey, who plays her sometimes-homeless brother and has known Linney for 20 years, said she adds new dimensions through her approachability. “Laura has an incredibly subversive and very sophisticated and very snarky sense of humor,” he said. “She knows how to find in a character the deepest, warmest colors and also knows how to turn them to ice in a second.”
Linney’s participation in “The Big C” — she’s also one of the executive producers — has drawn in other A-list talent, including Cynthia Nixon, who guest stars as Cathy’s wild college roommate, and Liam Neeson, who will play a beekeeper whom Cathy consults about alternative treatments.
The actress, whose previous television work has included the acclaimed miniseries “Tales of the City” and “John Adams,” said her first time as a regular on series television has been a powerful experience. “More than any other thing I’ve ever done, this is work that comes home with me,” Linney said. “That’s never happened on anything I’ve ever done.”
If viewers embrace the show, she’s eager, she said, to continue in the role. “People are here for bigger reasons other than a job,” Linney said. “Everybody knows that it’s about life.”