In The Big C, a cancer diagnosis reveals that "normal" was always someone else's idea.
"This better not be one of those Blind Side fantasies where the uptight white bitch tries to save a black kid." Cathy (Laura Linney) doesn’t even blink when she hears this from her student, Andrea (Gabourey Sidibe). Instead, she has a ready rejoinder, flatfooted but serviceable: she's not trying to "save" Andrea, she insists. "I just don’t want you to drop dead before you graduate."
This exchange, awkward as it may be, ends with Andrea agreeing to come to Cathy's house for dinner during the third episode of The Big C. By this point, it's clear that even if Showtime's new series is not "one of those Blind Side fantasies," it is another sort of fantasy. In this one, as in Weeds or The United States of Tara, a woman is beset by difficulty and so inspired to self-discovery, helped by a motley supporting cast.
Cathy's needs have to do with her recent diagnosis with stage four melanoma. She decides against the chemo advised by her doctor ("It would just be buying a little time," she says, not quite ruefully, "And make a lot of people take care of me"). Instead, Cathy starts rearranging her immediate circumstances: she contracts for a pool in her teeny yard (to relive some childhood diving memories), she has her husband, Paul (Oliver Platt) move out (so she has some "breathing room"), and she offers to pay Andrea $100 for every pound she loses.
Apart, both Cathy and Andrea seem resigned to seething, more or less silently. Together, however, they're prone to express themselves, frequently in defense of each other. And so, of the several pseudo-odd relationships The Big C is building, this one is least annoying. By the time of the Blind Side allusion, Andrea and Cathy are plainly feeling something like mutual respect. (Actually, this feeling is made clearer in a previous episode, when Andrea is impressed that Cathy uses a paintball gun to stop her son from leaving for soccer camp and Cathy is likewise impressed that Andrea uses the gun to stop him from sassing his mother.) The allusion has a meta function as well, signaling that The Big C means to challenge some stereotypes. It also reinforces some others.
For the first part: both Cathy and Andrea are self-aware and smart and cynical. They may not know exactly what you know -- for instance, that Sidibe's own sudden blast into fame occurred around the same time as Quinton Aaron's, and that both performances teetered between inspiration and exploitation -- but they know how race, class, and gender shape stories. And so they help you feel self-aware and smart and cynical too.
For the second part: both Cathy and Andrea are stuck inside a story premised on stereotypes. Chief among these would be the assortment of family, friends, and acquaintances that Cathy comes to see as "my people." Like too many sitcoms, this one features oddballs thrown together and tossed about by circumstance, here revolving around Cathy. The fact that she hasn't revealed her condition to anyone through three episodes allows those "people" to hang onto their crankiness longer than they might. It also allows you a certain narrative connection with Cathy, as you know what she knows. Thus, you see that her newly expressed concern for Andrea is born of her own sense of mortality. Her impulse to help Andrea lose weight, like herself more, and not die young derives from her own sense of lost time -- time receding before her.
This is, of course, an extremely subjective sense, and so hard to show on screen, though Linney's lovely, complicated, evocative performance allows you to think you're seeing it. As Cathy frets about her lack of time (thus her decision to keep her son, Adam [Gabriel Basso] home for the summer) and impatience with routines (she's asked her husband, Paul [Oliver Platt] to move out so she can have some "breathing room"), she also seeks new ways to be. Called "boring" by her tediously self-righteous and homeless brother Sean (John Benjamin Hickey), she asks Paul for feedback. As they sit across from one another in a restaurant, a series of shot-reverse-shots indicates he can only see himself: "It's just the way our personalities break down," he explains. "I just happen to be the one who does things some people might categorize as fun and you like to do other things that people might consider less than an optimal good time."
Cathy's cancer motivates her to reject Paul's apparently inexorable self-absorption: "I wanted to be the fun one," she announces (and yes, she'll soon be indulging in the sorts of behaviors that signal "fun" or "freedom," like spilling wine on furniture and eating onions). Her cancer moves her to reject other annoyances as well, like the platitudey cancer support group (cancer is not "a gift that allows you to speak up in your life and say, 'Hello, this is what I want'"), and Adam's adolescent-boy's expectation that she'll always clean up after him.
Still, The Big C's versions of empowerment aren't always convincing. Whether she's giving away Adam's clothes (as opposed to putting them in drawers for him) or caressing the wrinkles on her crabby neighbor Marlene's (Phyllis Somerville) face (wrinkles she will never have, herself), Cathy is caught up in a TV show that can't forget it is that. And so, it can offer the occasional moment that makes real or poetic sense: Marlene regrets her own life slipped away ("My husband built this house: he died and all my friends are dead, so I just sit out there and wait until I can see them again") and Andrea expresses anger at her lack of options (so far, you don’t know where she lives or who her "people" are, but you do know she's found a kind of solace in her quick wit and at least sometimes in binge eating, wherein, as she says, "I get to fall asleep with the taste of frosting in my mouth").
But more often, the show is a show: the camera cranes out to show Cathy's loneliness, the half-hour closes with a bittersweet pop song or the point is made too obviously ("Cancer's not a passport to a better life, cancer's the reason I'm not gonna have a life"). Still, the show does illustrate a useful idea, that what you think is "normal" is only that, what you think. When Cathy insists, "I'm not that normal girl anymore," she's speaking out of frustration and loss. Yearning for that "normal" even as she resents it, Cathy realizes that it was always someone else's idea.