Technical mastery of your craft and likability don’t usually go hand in hand. It’s almost a cliché to expect great artists to be impossibly arrogant figures, yet that’s the way it usually goes. Then we have someone like Laura Linney; a superb actress who can play almost anyone (from Abigail Adams to Lady Macbeth in Mystic River) and then also comes off looking as one of those personalities that literally light up the screen.
Darlene Hunt must have been fully aware of this when she cast Linney as high school teacher Cathy Jamison, the leading character on her TV show The Big C. On the series’ first episode we learn that Cathy has been diagnosed with terminal melanoma. She calmly receives the news from her oncologist (Reid Scott) before going on and on about nothing. “I’m kind of a private person” she confesses, “except around you”. Her tender relationship with her doctor is one of the many we follow her in during the truly delightful first season of this show.
After her diagnosis, Cathy, like most Hollywood cancer patients, decides it’s time to cross things off her bucket list and spends the entire summer (which covers 13 stand alone episodes) trying to build a pool, fixing her relationship with her husband (Oliver Platt), trying to connect with her teenage son Adam (Gabriel Basso), befriending her cranky neighbor Marlene (Phyllis Somerville) and trying to help her student Andrea (Gabourey Sidibe) lose some weight.
The catch is that she doesn’t tell anyone she’s sick.
What makes Cathy different from other TV patients, is that she’s not completely nice and in her illness she’s not really trying to achieve any sort of sainthood. “You can’t be fat and mean” she says to Andrea, after she makes fun of Cathy’s teaching method, “you can either be fat and jolly or a skinny bitch”. Cathy says it like she thinks it, and throughout the first season we get the sense that she wasn’t someone really nice before she got sick.
The show’s greatest achievement is perhaps its lack of condescension towards cancer patients. In one of the episodes Cathy attends a group support meeting, where she is greeted by a poster that compares cancer to a passport to happiness. She leaves the group and never returns, which leads us to wonder if Cathy isn’t in denial.
It might seem at first glance that the show merely uses cancer as a red herring of sorts, given that other than the mention of it in each episode, we never really see the physical consequences it’s having on Cathy. The emotional toll might as well be applied to any other life altering event, then again this is only one season and by the end of it, it achieves what any first season wants to do: it leaves you craving for more.
Most of this success is owed to Linney, who practically carries the entire weight of the show on her shoulders. To watch Linney act is to watch an actress who has forgotten all vanity and simply vanishes into her character. Cathy might have Linney’s smile and pitch perfect enunciation, but other than that, we are encountering a woman filled with such dark desires and repression that you end up wondering if the cancer was ever really her biggest problem.
Seen by others as a control freak, Linney deconstructs this woman who goes from obsessing over the right color for her new couch to having an affair with an artist (the extremely masculine Idris Elba). Even when the show sometimes tries to wrap Cathy’s misdoings at the end of each episode, Linney goes beyond that and gives us a woman who’s constantly playing with fire, thinking little about the consequences.
It’s the complicated dichotomy between Cathy’s selfishness and her potent desire to stay alive that make this show such a refreshing surprise. Linney’s chemistry with the cast is enviable, particularly when it comes to her scenes with John Benjamin Hickey, who plays her homeless brother, Sean. When she tries to tell him about her disease, he criticizes her bourgeoisie existence before blurting “You are just really fucking boring.”
Linney, lets us see how this comment damages Cathy, but just a few minutes later she has transformed this adult hurt into childhood joy, as she begins to play fight her brother. We are often left wanting to see more of Cathy and this obviously, and ironically, assures us that The Big C will probably have a healthy life. Whether Showtime extends the series for one more season or two, the truth is that the cancer itself should start playing a more important part (even if most actors confess in the interviews that they don’t think of it as “the cancer show”) before Cathy’s dilemma seems gimmicky.
In the meantime, it’s a pleasure to watch a quirky, but not annoyingly so, ensemble as its members achieve a wonderful synergy (Basso’s very last scene this season packs an unexpected emotional punch) and with stories left to unfold (will Sean leave the streets to raise a child?). The second season can’t come soon enough. “I’m here all year” says Cathy after delivering an awkward joke to her doctor. And that’s what we hope for.