Prepare yourselves, people. Showtime’s new series, The Big C, is profound television. It’s touching, it’s devastating, and it’ll make you step back and examine your life and the relationships you have with those around you. How is all this possible, you ask? Engaging storytelling? Is the show something we’ve never seen before? Well, no. But it’s got Laura Linney. And c’mon. She’s got cancer.
Linney plays Cathy Jamison, and Cathy’s story is one TV is showing us more and more these days. Circumstances beyond her control – in this case, an untreatable case of skin cancer – have caused her to make drastic changes in her life. No longer is she content to play the timid, quiet spouse. No longer will she let others walk all over her. From now on, things are gonna change! She’s gonna speak her mind, scream at her neighbors and eat onions, because dammit, you only live once, amirite?
Faced with her own mortality, Cathy’s grabbing life by the balls. Okay. I can understand that. We’ve seen similar things in Breaking Bad and other shows. The problem with The Big C is that the show doesn’t bother to properly set things up so that the changes Cathy’s decided to make make sense. In Breaking Bad, we saw that Walt and Skyler weren’t exactly rolling in the dough. We saw Skyler selling things on eBay to earn extra cash. We saw all the crap Walt was taking at the car wash. Then, when he found out he had cancer and began cooking meth, we understood his reasoning and it made sense.
Things here don’t work like that. We’re supposed to understand that Cathy’s husband is basically an overgrown child because he rides a Vespa to work and likes video games. We’re supposed to understand that Cathy isn’t really in control of her own life because she lets a contractor talk her into getting a hot tub instead of the swimming pool she wanted. And we’re supposed to understand that she constantly eats up everyone’s crap because Gabourey Sidibe gives her some guff after showing up to class late.
But all things considered, and definitely all things we’re shown in the pilot, it doesn’t really seem like Cathy has things that bad. But before we know it she’s doing cartwheels down hallways and cussing out her neighbor. It’s a transformation that I don’t think the show has really earned for itself, and I wonder if it’ll be disorienting for anyone tuning in. Of course, Laura Linney is the star, so there are more than a few people who will be willing to forgive the pilot if the show can pull itself together in later episodes. Still, Linney has her work cut out for her. A capable actress though she is, her performance throughout the pilot is pretty uneven. She’s quirky, she’s flirty, she’s defeated and she’s angry, and not necessarily in that order. At this point, I’m not sure she’s settled on how she wants to play the character.
She comes off best when she’s sarcastic and pissed off. The problem with that is her being sarcastic and pissed off isn’t what the show is ultimately going to be about. Another problem is that sarcastic and pissed off isn’t pissed off and pissed off. In one scene where Cathy confronts a neighbor who’s been nothing but rude to her in the five years they’ve lived next to each other, she really comes off as mean and a little over the top. The show obviously thinks it’s profound, so I wouldn’t expect Linney to go out and start shooting people, but right now she’s taking the character from 0 to 60 in about three seconds, and she’s going to need to find a way to even that out.
Adding to the cast are the aforementioned Sidibe and Oliver Platt, who stars as Linney’s husband. They obviously don’t get as much screentime as she does, but in the end they feel more consistent, and for my money, more entertaining. But despite its shortcomings, I’m more than willing to stick around and see how the show develops. I mean, it is Laura Linney. And she’s got cancer.